Since the pandemic began, Carolyn Ryall has been walking her two children to school more often, and she says her neighbours are doing the same with their kids — likely because they’re working from home. “The number of people I see walking, at least from my perspective, is substantially more than what it has been in the past,” says Niagara region’s director of transportation.
With walking and other forms of outdoor activity reportedly on the increase during the pandemic — and more parents and children potentially travelling to school on foot — the issue of road safety has taken on greater importance for community members and officials in Hamilton and Niagara. “You can see how [early in the pandemic,] people were trying to get outside and use the infrastructure — the multi-use paths, the cycling lanes — because they were just trying to get out, exercise, and try to change the dynamic versus staying inside their home,” Ryall says.
As students returned to class this month, Niagara region launched 10 new community-safety zones — areas in which penalties for traffic violations are higher — at schools on regional roads. The changes come as part of the region’s adoption of the Vision Zero road-safety plan (an initiative seen in other cities, such as Toronto and Hamilton, that’s aimed at eliminating deaths on roadways). “A community-safety zone can be used in other vulnerable-user areas, such as parks and long-term-care homes,” Ryall explains. “But, right now, we're targeting schools just because we are trying to encourage young families to walk their kids to and from school, and children to feel safe to walk on the sidewalk or ride their bike home.”
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More students may also be walking to avoid school buses, given the higher risk of transmitting COVID-19 in crowded indoor spaces. Pat Daly, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board, says that school-bus opt-outs have led to more students walking or driving to school in his area but notes that the approximately 17 per cent of students (about 5,000 students) learning virtually likely offsets the increase. “Overall, fewer students are walking,” Daly says. “But, in terms of the proportion of those that are actually attending school physically, there would be a higher percentage of them walking.”
Fewer students busing might also mean more driving, which could increase traffic outside schools. “If large numbers of those virtual students come back — which we hope they do — and fewer of them want to take the school bus, then we'll have to come up with ways [to ease traffic], because the congestion in front of our schools will be overwhelming,” Daly says, adding that, as yet, he’s seen no signs that e-learning students will return to in-person classes anytime soon.
Lori Ziraldo, executive director of Niagara Student Transportation Services, which provides bus service for the public and Catholic boards in Niagara, says that, of the 32,000 students eligible for its service, about 74 per cent (23,000 students) have opted in. A good traffic-easing practice, she says, is for parents to drop off children a few minutes away from school. This frees up space for active forms of transportation, such as walking and cycling. “When we take the cars out of the mix by having parents move farther away, it helps just alleviate the congestion around the school zones so that the crossing guards can perform their jobs supporting students’ safety and that the buses are able to efficiently get in and out of the school zone,” she says. “It's less congestion, and less congestion is safer.”
Lisa Gallant, a health-promotion specialist for Niagara Region Public Health, says that increased physical activity brought about by the pandemic offers parents the chance to teach children about fitness and to reinforce the importance of road safety: “It provides an opportunity now to take that a step further and walk to destinations, like schools, and continue with that behaviour — or to look at this as an opportunity to walk even a couple of days a week.”
Gallant works with NSTS and municipalities to make it easier for students to walk and bike, consulting residents and surveying the areas around schools to inform decisions about infrastructure and school transportation. “The focus is to decrease the number of car trips around the school during those peak times and increase the number of students or children who walk and bike to school,” she says. October is International Walk to School Month, she notes, adding that walking or biking to school helps reduce emissions, improves physical activity, and offers mental-health benefits by relieving stress and increasing independence.
Beatrice Ekoko, a writer and a senior project manager with Environment Hamilton, which advocates for environmental sustainability and road safety, says that increased physical activity and the temporary road changes many cities have made to accommodate businesses — by extending patios, for example — inspired her return to an area in Hamilton that she’s been hearing concerns about for the past two years: Wilson Street near Dr. J.E. Davey Elementary School, in the Beasley neighbourhood.
Using stickers, she showed that sidewalks near the school are too narrow to allow for physical distancing. And walking in the street to pass someone, she notes, can be risky. “This is a really dangerous area for very vulnerable road users,” she says, adding that many trucks use Wilson Street (Hamilton is currently reviewing where it lets industrial trucks drive). Area residents have told her, she says, that the street feels unsafe and that they know many people who take alternate routes to avoid it.
Data from Hamilton’s 2019 annual collision report shows that, between 2015 and 2019, there were two cyclist collisions on Wilson Street a block west of the school in which someone was hurt or killed. In 2019, two pedestrians were killed or injured near the intersection two blocks east of the school.
A city spokesperson told TVO.org via email that staff have noticed an increase in students walking to school — and that it is running its annual back-to-school road-safety campaign. A staff group dedicated to road safety will continue to work on traffic-calming measures. “In terms of the area on Wilson St. near Dr. J.E. Davey Elementary School, we are aware of some concerns in the community," they wrote. "The area is currently under review by City staff. At this time, staff are making plans to remove the parking restrictions on the northernmost lane of Wilson between Ferguson and Mary, to address the issue of parking in front of the school, encourage traffic calming and improve the walking environment at the sidewalk. This work is expected over the coming weeks. We will certainly continue working with the neighbourhood, the school community on road safety education, as we usually do.”
Ekoko says the city should consider temporarily closing a lane of traffic to expand the sidewalk and make more room for pedestrians. Now, she says, is the time for bold policy action. “We need to do more for pedestrians to be able to physically distance,” she says “To me, there was an opportunity with COVID-19 to uplift the agenda that we already had to make streets safer for vulnerable road users.”
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