Fewer children walking to school, Metrolinx report finds

Fewer children walking to school, Metrolinx report finds

The number of children walking to school in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area has declined, again, according to a new Metrolinx report.

The report incorporates data from the Transportation Tomorrow Survey, conducted every five years going back to 1986, and aims to visualize trends in active school travel, namely rates at which children and teens are biking or walking to school.

It found the rate at which 11- to 13-year-olds walk to school decreased to 36.9 per cent in 2016 from 39 per cent in 2011. For 14- to 17-year olds, rates of walking dropped to 25.5 per cent in 2016 from 28 per cent in 2011.

In 1986, kids who walked to school made up 55 per cent and 36.4 per cent in those age groups, respectively.

And, though rates of children being driven to school changed only slightly over the last five years, it has more than doubled since 1986. And “the distance at which people would prefer driving (their kids to school) is getting shorter,” says Ron Buliung, a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga and lead author of the report released Wednesday.

“(That’s) kind of concerning, because we’re getting into driving at distances that are entirely walkable,” says Buliung, noting “walkability” is relative based on factors such as disabilities and work schedules.

With the school commute making up 20 per cent of morning traffic, the overall trends are affecting road congestion, according to Metrolinx.

“Some parents want to drive their kids because they have the perception that it’s not safe to walk,” said Anne Marie Aikins, spokesperson at the transit agency. That decision in turn increases the number of cars on the road, she said.

A recent Star story about the effects of walkability on kids’ health suggests these fears may be unfounded. Experts say walkable streets and other amenities that encourage more physical activity in children are not only what kids want, but what they need.

Metrolinx’s Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) envisions 60 per cent of children actively getting to school by 2041, a statistic which would require a significant increase from the current rates.

Buliung says the report is meant to get parents thinking more critically about how their kids are getting to school.

“We’re not going after families and blaming them for not encouraging or participating in active travel,” Buliung says. “Rather, we want to try to understand why that’s not happening.”

The report also shows disparities in the way children travel based on time of day and gender.

While 35.3 per cent of 14- to 17-year-olds in 2016 were driven to school in the morning, only 21.5 per cent were driven home. Meanwhile, the rate of walking increased from 25.5 per cent in the morning to 33.4 per cent in the afternoon. The report also found, in 2016, boys were more likely to walk or bike to school, while girls were more likely to be driven.

Buliung, who walked his eldest daughter to and from school for several years, encourages parents to examine the reasons for these differences when thinking about how their children commute.

“If you’re OK with your child walking or biking in the afternoon, maybe just ask, ‘Why is this not happening in the morning?’” he says, adding it’s important for families to consider transportation methods across their entire household. “Are there ways in which we’re privileging certain ways of moving for some of our children and not for others?”

Despite the slump in strolling to school and the desire to drive, cycling is on the rise — with the overall rate in 2016 nearly double that of 2011 — though rates remain under 2.5 per cent in all age groups.

Rhianna Jackson-Kelso is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @RhiannaJK

Stefanie Marotta is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @StefanieMarotta

With notes from Emerald Bensadoun.

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