Two years ago, while doing research and reporting for my book, I joined an Active & Safe Routes to School walkabout at an elementary school in Ottawa. The intervention, part of a program led by a national non-profit called Green Communities Canada, is part of a process that involves collecting travel behaviour data, traffic observation and education. The walkabout brings together people who want to encourage more children to walk or cycle to school — and people who have the ability to make changes that will make school zones more safe. “Traffic danger” is one of the main reasons parents don’t want their kids going to school under their own steam, so they drive there, leading to more morning rush-hour congestion on the roads, and more danger for pedestrians and cyclists.
In late April, having helped bring the school travel planning project to the school my daughters attend, with travel behaviour data in hand and dangerous locations identified, we did our walkabout. Led by Active & Safe Routes to School facilitator Jessica Sheridan and program manager Wallace Beaton, we were joined by Alta Vista city councillor Jean Cloutier, a pair of facilities managers from the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, school board trustee Chris Ellis, a public health nurse, the City of Ottawa’s school zone traffic safety coordinator, hard-working principal Guido Ronci, and several parents from the school community.
For two hours, we walked from location to location on and around the school site, talking about the specific dangers kids face at each spot — such as speeding, illegal stopping, bad sight lines, lack of signage — and what could be done. More important, perhaps, we identified who has the jurisdiction to make changes such as longer pedestrian crossing times at a set of traffic lights, or leading pedestrian intervals (LPIs), which give walkers a head start into an intersection, making them more visible and reinforcing their right of way over turning vehicles. According to the National Association of City Transportation Official in the U.S., “LPIs have been shown to reduce pedestrian-vehicle collisions as much as 60% at treated intersections.” Both of these changes, which are the purvey of the city’s traffic signals department, should make things safer at the corner where my daughter and I were hit by a turning car on our way to school in 2013. And considering that we did the walkabout the morning after former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan gave an inspiring talk to a packed Aberdeen Pavilion about how she used data to convince Mayor Bloomberg to “rewrite the underlying ‘source code’ of” their city, and how powerful that transformation has been, these changes and the statistics that support them do matter.
The City of Ottawa also has the ability to prohibit turns onto certain streets during specific periods of time, which would prevent drivers from cutting through school zones as they race to work in the morning. And it has a range of tools at its disposal, such as the Safety Improvement Program, which “touches on all three Es of road safety: education, enforcement and engineering, with primary focus on engineering. The program selects locations to study, carries out in-depth studies of collision patterns and recommends countermeasures.”
Over the course of the walkabout, which stretched to incredibly busy intersections half a mile from the school that children must navigate through each day, it became clear that this intervention was about more than student safety. If executed properly, it’s about a safer, more integrated community — and helping to raise a generation that sees active travel as a default, instead of becoming stressed-out commuters like their parents.