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If you’re old enough to remember the first day of school in the 1970s or 80s, your memory is probably of rolling up on foot, with nary a parental vehicle in sight. Moms and dads mostly didn’t chauffeur their children to class. School was something you walked to.

Fast forward to the present. Canadian school drop-off zones often look like the parking lot outside a concert, with harried vice-principals in neon vests directing traffic, and tiny children navigating a sea of giant SUVs.

Fewer than a quarter of Canadian students between the ages of 5 and 19 typically walk or ride their bikes to school, according to the non-profit organization ParticipAction. An Angus Reid survey conducted for the charity Children Believe found the share to be barely higher, at 27 per cent.

The rest aren’t all being whisked to school in the back seat of a car. Some who live far from school have no choice but to take yellow buses or public transit.

But of those students who live close enough to walk, far fewer do so than in previous generations. In the Greater Toronto Area, a study by the transportation agency Metrolinx found the rate of parents driving kids to school more than doubled between 1986 and 2016.

What happened in the intervening decades? Why did driving children to school become so common that an “International Walk to School Day” was created to counter the trend? (It’s Oct. 5 this year.)

Part of the explanation for all the traffic around schools is, paradoxically, the fear of traffic itself, given that most streets and neighbourhoods are primarily designed for fast-moving cars, not small human beings on foot. Who can blame parents for being apprehensive about sending kids out on streets with lots of hurried drivers, but without sidewalks or crosswalks or crossing guards?

But driving to school only makes the problem worse. One study by researchers at York University and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children captured rampant dangerous driving during morning drop-off at Toronto schools, with parents doing U-turns, pulling up onto sidewalks or letting their children out of the back seat in the middle of the street. In the span of 12 years, more than 400 children were hit by a car within 200 metres of the schools the researchers monitored.

Another part of the explanation could be the way parenting and childhood have changed since the 1980s. Mostly gone are the days of kids roaming the neighbourhood until the street lights come on. If it’s not socially acceptable to let a nine-year-old play at the park alone, letting her walk to school probably won’t fly either. Helicopter parenting is self-reinforcing: The more parents hover, the more the hovering seems normal, even beneficial. Parents who want to buck the consensus may find their children have no one to walk to school with.

Still, there’s a twist in the Metrolinx data that suggests there’s more to the story than just parental fear and social conformity. The transportation agency’s most recent study concluded that, in 2016, 36.9 per cent of preteens walked to school in the morning but, after school, 42.5 per cent walked home. In the morning, 30 per cent caught a ride. In the afternoon, only 20.8 per cent did.

Why the difference between the morning and afternoon? A series of focus groups Metrolinx commissioned in 2018 and 2019 found that “most households feel rushed, busy, chaotic, hectic and stressful as family members get ready to leave for school – this contributes to the urgency for a fast and convenient drop-off.” The kids are slow to pack their bags, they can’t find their mitts, they won’t put down their tablets. Before parents know it, time is up and the only remaining option is to drive to school on the way to the office.

Most research about dwindling walk-to-school rates comes from before the pandemic. It will be interesting to see if the rise of remote and hybrid workplaces – and the corresponding fall in morning commutes – gives more families the time to walk children to school, or to get the kids out the door on their own.

Everyone knows that walking to school is good for children’s health. It’s also good for their brains and their souls. It gives them a chance to experience independence and develop maturity – things that can’t be found while strapped into the back seat of a car. It lays the seeds of future memories of what used to be called “childhood.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced a study showing the number of children hit by a car within one year, when in fact it was over 12 years.

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