Road Renewals Can Support School Streets

Devonshire Public School in Hintonburg has an opportunity to reimagine its street, let’s explore some ideas.

It’s a common scene at Devonshire Community Public School, located on Breezehill Avenue North just south of Somerset Street in Hintonburg, hundreds of students arriving each day by foot, bike, scooter, skateboard, stroller, or even by sled in the winter. Devonshire has long had a culture of active transportation for kids and their families.  Now big changes on Breezehill Avenue North are taking place and the community, the city will have some choices to make.

Devonshire Public School on Breezehill Avenue North
Devonshire Public School on Breezehill Avenue North

A significant consideration is a 271 unit residential complex with 244 parking spaces being built at the corner of Breezehill Avenue and Somerset Avenue West, at the same time a street renewal is in the plans for Breezehill North, including traffic lights at Somerset.  The street renewal design will determine how the street is used, many studies have shown that wide roads lead to speed and induce traffic. Conversely wider sidewalks and narrow roadways slow drivers down. We see this as an opportunity for the city to design the street into a place for a healthy and vibrant community, at the heart of its design making it a safe and enjoyable place for kids to actively travel to Devonshire Public School.

What do school days look like now?

Currently, the sidewalks on Breezehill Avenue are too narrow to support the volume of people using this route, especially in the winter with snow banks or on rainy days when people pass each other with umbrellas. People often walk on the road, even with strollers, just to get through. The speed limit is 40km/hour (fortunately traffic is light now). Studies show that the chance of fatality is reduced by 67% in a pedestrian motor vehicle collision when the speed is reduced to 30km/h. This underscores our argument that driver convenience and school zone safety are not casual trade-offs.

What school days could look like in the future?

Ottawa’s new Official Plan focuses on developing walkable 15-minute neighbourhoods, which can include permanently reallocating street space for walking and slowing vehicular traffic down through road design. We are proposing a new approach to school zone safety, rather than mitigating risk of traffic at the expense of hiring more crossing guards, or having school staff outside managing traffic, we temporarily remove the hazard.  In other words making a part of Breezehill Avenue car-free during pick up and drop off hours.

This exact concept has been employed close to home in Kingston, Hamilton, Mississauga, Markham and Vancouver: it’s known as a School Street.  A School Street is a temporary exclusive walking corridor established during pick up and drop off times, usually set up with temporary barricades at each end.  In the case of Devonshire a School Street can be set up between Laurel Street and Somerset Street for 30-45 minutes during pick up and drop off times.

Another concept is making the street pedestrian and cycle priority, through use of a “Woonerf”.   A Woonerf is a Dutch-style street, also called a living street, that uses physical design to slow drivers down to a walking pace, and to allow people priority use of the street.  A design can also allow additional space for trees, greenery, or even an extension of the school’s play and learning areas. This idea is not far off from the 10-20km/hr speed limits we presently see in townhome complexes and parking lots. Creating a woonerf between Somerset and Laurel would make it easy to set up a School Street during key hours. Additionally, it would make the environment safer and more enjoyable at all hours of the day as traffic in the area increases.

The goals are simple, to create a safe environment for kids to safely walk and cycle to school; reduce locally generated congestion and improve air quality; and create a community connection. The redesign of Breezehill Avenue should take into account for these concepts to be operationalized in near future.

Why Road Design Matters

Active school transportation is an important part of kids’ wellbeing and development. A recent study done by Green Communities Canada and Ontario Active School Travel found that barely 2/3s of Canadian children are meeting daily physical activity recommendations; and that children who walk or ride a bike to school can achieve half of their daily physical activity. This same study iterates the link between physical activity and cognitive and academic development. A Public Health study found less than 25% of Canadian children get to school by walking or biking, including 47% of students who live 5 min from thier school. This underscores the need to encourage active transportation through policy and transportation design. 

A 2022 survey done by School Streets Ottawa asked councillors for their thoughts on encouraging active school transportation. A common theme to many responses is that the road design to school-adjacent streets allowed for speeding, this discouraged many families from even considering walking or cycling to school.  It is imperative that the new design of Breezehill is such that active transportation is safe and convenient for all residents.  Councilor Jeff Leiper in his response to the survey stated his support for piloting a city-wide School Street program and pointed to his record in supporting active transportation initiatives. We think this is a great starting point towards shifting thinking with city planners and stakeholders to take steps to operationalize school active transportation.

The renewal of Breezehill Avenue is an opportunity to keep active school travel safe and enjoyable for Devonshire students.  Street design is tied to healthy and active school travel for all ages andit is at the heart of community change making for Hintonburg families for generations to come.  In summary, it is important we make our community streets places that are safe for kids to move independently and actively. It sends a message to our kids that their trip is a valuable one. 

Now it’s your turn Kitchissippi Ward, what ideas do you have about active school transportation in your community?

Contributed by Cassie Smith, Chris Hircock

Cassie Smith is an active transportation advocate, contributor to School Streets Ottawa, and a parent to a Devonshire Public School student

Chris Hircock is a founder and contributor to  School Streets Ottawa, an organization advocating for active school travel, and a parent to a Broadview Public School Student

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