Calgary mom Lindsay Bliek understands the importance of raising healthy, active kids.
But for her, having daughters Marion and Gloria walk or bike to school was about something more. It was about independence.
“I think that’s one of the most important lessons that they can learn really over the next few years,” she said.
Bliek, who also blogs about biking with kids at This Mom Bikes, wanted to get involved in promoting more active transportation in her Calgary neighbourhood of Parkhill, so she’s being trained as a facilitator in the Active and Safe Routes to School program.
The program is done in partnership with the City of Calgary, Ever Active Schools Alberta and the school boards to identify routes and educate students and their parents on active transportation.
“I’d like to help make it so (kids) can get to school safely, much like when I was a kid. I used to walk to school and that was that. It wasn’t a big deal,” she said.
“Nowadays it just seems like this huge deal to let our kids do that.”
The 2018 ParticipACTION report card on physical activity for children and youth showed that one in five Canadian kids used active modes of transportation (walking or biking). Just over one in three are achieving the recommended daily amount of physical activity, according to the report.
Currently, the Calgary Board of Education walk zones are 1.6 kilometres and 2.4 kilometres, depending on the child’s grade.
University of Toronto PhD candidate George Mammen and professor Guy Faulkner said walking to and from school each day is an easy way for kids to get closer to this goal. Not only that, but they also recently produced work showing that active modes to school can help stave off depression.
Quite often, parental fears around safety are behind kids not walking to school, Mammen’s work stated, but according to Tracey Coutts, coordinator for Ever Active Schools in Alberta, that’s why they get kids engaged early on.
“Students are at the center of all of our projects, all of our education, and they become the change makers,” Coutts said.
“We focus a lot on the student experience, and what the student is missing out on when they don’t travel actively.”
Barriers for more active transportation pop up in all neighbourhoods, Coutts said, and sometimes that hurdle is attitude.
“I’m too busy. I like the convenience. You know, sometimes they’re just those barriers that we have to work our way through where people aren’t focused on the benefits of travelling actively,” she said.
It’s about making active transportation the norm, Coutts said. To help schools, students and parents achieve this, they help collect data, provide a family travel survey and use the Active and Safe Routes to School tool kit – a consistent, Canada-wide travel planning tool.
Coutts said through their work they’re finding that kids aren’t even familiar with their neighbourhoods anymore because they don’t roam around.
“All of us can think back to our own childhood, and how important that was to build all of the competencies that we have now, right? Problem solving, creativity, and all, like risk taking. All of those things like learning your limits,” she said, adding that kids are often protected from these things today.
She calls active transportation a community-building tool.
“So, if you want to build a great community, a great neighborhood, the first place to start is transportation. Get out walking and wheeling. That’s how you meet people in your neighbourhood. That’s how you figure out who’s a safe person and who’s not such a safe person,” Coutts said.
Most of the neighbourhood work can be done simply. Whether it’s traffic cones preventing parking near the school’s intersections, or educating on the safest route to travel – it can all be done without major city intervention.
Still, the City of Calgary is a willing partner in the program to help get more kids walking or biking to school.
Monique Castonguay, transportation engineer with the city, said this effort is part of Calgary’s pedestrian strategy. They’re focusing on the Four Es: Education, Encouragement, Engineering and Enforcement.
Working with Ever Active Schools and the school boards, they’re taking advantage of the education and encouragement tools that are already available to develop an action plan for the area. So far only a handful of Calgary schools have been engaged in the work for roughly a year now, but more are expected to step up.
Castonguay said there’s often a host of “tactical” things communities can do to encourage the active transportation behaviour. It could be the traffic cones, walking school buses, sidewalk painting, or assessing the area and removing physical impediments to walking or biking.
The areas come with different challenges, too.
“Each school area is pretty unique. You know, not only are we looking at the physical environment, but where their populations are coming from,” Castonguay said.
“So that has an influence on things as well, like if the school is primarily where children are driven to school, we may be looking at different things than in a school where all the children live within the walk zone.”
In Bliek’s area, they have the Elbow River as a natural barrier, but students also have to cross a busy 42 Avenue SE. Plus, the French immersion school where her children go has a large catchment area and students are coming in from Inglewood and Ramsay.
“Distance is the biggest barrier, I think, for most kids, or at least having a continuous route to school that is safe once they’re on that network. And there’s an excellent network in place, but there are still gaps in our specific catchment,” Bliek said.
But in her travels, Bliek said it’s most hectic in the one or two blocks around the school, where parents are driving up, dropping kids off and then heading out. When everybody’s there at once, it can be chaotic and potentially unsafe.
That’s why she wants to help change it.
“Every kid that ends up walking or rolling to school means one less parent or caregiver driving. So, I think that there’s some serious potential for positive peer pressure here,” she said.
“But ultimately, it comes down to people changing habits, which is a challenge. And I don’t know if anyone has a clear answer for that.”