Children going to school

Children going to school

Every now and then, The Globe and Mail publishes an article bemoaning the fact that children no longer walk to school. Another one appeared on April 5, 2016.

The burden of the argument was that children concentrate better and learn more when they walk to and from school, and that we should be concerned about the erosion of this habit. (Perhaps their parents would do better at work if they walked there too, but that’s for another day).

The next day an editorial appeared, reinforcing the message that it is much better for the children and the air we breathe in cities if kids are not driven to school.

Okey-dokey. This issue always pushes my buttons. Of course, children and the environment would benefit if fewer kids walked to school. Often, the underlying assumption seems to be that parents are failing their children by not walking them to school. Parents can only operate in their own physical and institutional environment. Decisions by school boards to close schools so that the districts are larger have made it more difficult for children to walk to school. Decisions by urban government to privilege the car above all other modes of transportation have made walking and biking increasingly unsafe. Pedestrians and cyclists need infrastructure, and parents can’t provide that on their own. For bike lanes to be safe for children, they need to be fully segregated and protected by cars and they also need to be governed at intersections by separate signals. We live five kilometres from our school and the children take the school bus. That’s a bit far for them to walk, and their bike route would include a road with trucks travelling at more than 60 kilometres per hour. Of course we choose the bus.

The Globe editorial concludes thus:

What would it take to loosen the growing car-school connection? At some point, both parents and society will have to decide that this is one area where the habits of the past beat those of the present. Well-coached elementary-school students have the physical ability to make the trip independently, and until recently most kids did. All that’s required is the willingness and trust to let them.

That’s easier said than done. We tend to calculate risks irrationally, and risks to unaccompanied children most irrationally of all. Look to Japan, where it’s normal for six-year-olds to roam across crowded cities on their own – with the understanding that these first forays into independence rely on a powerful and protective sense of a shared community space that is harder to sustain in a me-first car culture.

The way to loosen that connection is to sever people from their cars. The way to sever people from their cars is to make other options easy and safe. The siren call of the car is strong: warmth, comfort, lack of physical effort, speed. My bike calls to me with different blandishments: fun, almost free, speed (with all those cars choking up the roads, bikes are often faster). I love cycling with my children: we talk about the birds we see, about our thoughts or about nothing at all.  At the end of the trip they are almost never grumpy even if they started out that way. Worries and stresses have a way of evaporating on a bicycle. Bonus: sleep comes easily on those nights.

Lone cyclists can’t make the infrastructure that allows all this stress-busting alone. Urban governments have to be partners and have to make decisions that car-drivers won’t like. But I don’t think it’s really fair to lay the blame solely at parents’ doors. It seems highly unlikely that the Globe is going to publish an editorial calling for cycle tracks on every main road, but I can live in hope.