Skip to main content

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - October 19, 2011 - Jessica Frey walks her son Ari (6) to school in their Winnipeg neighbourhood Wednesday, October 19, 2011. Frey does not own a car. (John Woods for the Globe and Mail) Story details: Jessica Frey, 27 with Ari Frey, 6. Winnipeg. Commute: 30 minutes by bus or 20 minutes by bicycle to Starbucks, where she is a shift supervisor. Ms. Frey and her husband, James, who is a graduate student at the University of Manitoba, gave up their car three years ago to save money. They have gradually learned to love life without a vehicle. She says the family stays home more often; she and her husband invite friends over rather than going out. Their children, Ari, 6, and Jude, 4, walk to school and to sports programs at a community centre about one kilometre away. In winter, James often cross-country skis to class. "We've learned how much you don't need to go places," Ms. Frey says. "Some parents are hopping around keeping up with their kids' schedules. We don't do that and we consider it a blessing."JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

Children aren't walking or cycling to school as much as they used to, says a recent study from the Greater Toronto Area transportation agency Metrolinx. Who's surprised?

The streets around our junior education hubs become dependably gridlocked when legions of dutiful, well-meaning parents perform the mandatory drop-off and pick-up. The school run has turned into a frustrating crawl as distracted chauffeurs bob and weave for a prime piece of curb-blocking real estate so their offspring don't have to make too long or dangerous a trek from the car door to the school entrance.

How many kids do you see in the morning walking to school? Fewer and fewer, despite the frustrating traffic jams and increased safety hazards that a growing reliance on car transport presents. In 1986, only 12 per cent of 11 to 13-year-olds in and around Toronto were driven to school, according to the Metrolinx data. By 2011, that figure had risen to 31 per cent. The number who walked declined from 56 per cent to 39 per cent.

But the convenience offered by the car carries many costs. Active children are healthier, more alert and more independent than classmates who depend on door-to-door car service. Schools that are pedestrian-centred destinations rather than glorified parking lots enhance the neighbourhoods they're meant to serve. And neighbourhoods with lots of pedestrians are vibrant and safe communities in ways that places with barren sidewalks are not.

And the more children who get to school under their own steam, the fewer cars on the roads – Metrolinx estimates that 20 per cent of the vehicles in peak morning traffic are doing the school run. So the war on the car and the pursuit of knowledge turn out to be inextricably bound.

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.