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Five steps to get our kids moving more

Denmark countryside
In Denmark they take protected biking and walking so seriously that they even have separate lanes in the countryside.

Today, just 22 per cent of students in grades 6 to 10 across the country now walk to school

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Renowned urbanist Bille Giles-Cortie put our wheels versus walking conundrum into perspective in a recent online post, when she wrote that “walking to school was a rite of passage, but now, most kids get driven to school because parents are fearful of traffic.”

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This new normal is in sharp contrast with how we moved about in previous decades, when well over half of our kids made their way to school by walking or biking.

Today, according to a Government of Canada stat, just 22 percent of students in grades 6 to 10 across the country now walk to school while 74 get there by motorized transportation.

Part of the reason for that is that many of our new schools are being build closer to major roads – roads that are easier to access by car but as a consequence are often farther away from residential areas.

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Yet another is that even when children live within a five minute walk or bike to school, only 47 percent are getting to class using active transportation, which gives rise to two key challenges we need to address if we want to encourage our youth to live a healthier lifestyle by moving more.

The first challenge is that because kids are increasingly being driven even when the school is close by, they’re more likely to become sedentary. The second is that the kids who are still walking and biking to school are often exposed to higher levels of airborne pollution with more cars on the road.

When schools are too far away to walk or bike, there’s not much we can do, short of a 180 change in mindset. In other words, we start building educational facilities in more densely populated areas.

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As for schools already close by, there are specific actions we parents can lobby city officials to enact. Here are five worth considering:

1. Make safety a priority. One study cited by U.S. organization People for Bikes found that when New York city installed a protected bike lane on a busier road, bicycling increased 56 percent.

Similarly, kids don’t feel comfortable walking to school without sidewalks. It’s common sense then that if we want to get our kids moving, they need to feel safe. And to ensure that happens, we need to adopt a pedestrians first approach to public infrastructure.

2. Establish car free zones around schools. While it may sound a bit radical, major cities like London have already started down that path to reduce car-borne air pollution.

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The reality is that to make it safe for kids to walk and bike to school, it’s not just about sidewalks and protected bike lanes – it’s about clearing the air.

3. Create bike and walking buses. A bike bus is tied to a strategy of strength in numbers, whereby kids – especially younger ones feel safer getting from A to B when doing so in a group.

As a result, more and more schools around the world are organizing group walks and rides to and from school that have become known as bike and walk buses.

4. Make it cool to go to school. Yet another challenge that has been amplified by record-breaking temperatures is the heat rising up from the roads and sidewalks our kids are going back and forth on. Hot spots that are a huge deterrent for walking and biking.

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One way to help reduce the heat is to plant more trees along major pedestrian routes. Another less obvious one cities have increasingly begun to explore is to paint over dark, hot surfaces with heat reflective coatings which can reduce temperatures by several degrees.

5. Clear the way. The lack of properly cleared sidewalks in winter months either deters pedestrians or makes it much more treacherous for them to get to school.

It’s a problem for far too many communities in Canada and the U.S., so much so that organizations like Go Bike Buffalo have been lobbying for years now to get their city to plow the sidewalks to make it easier and safer for residents to move about on foot. Sadly, they are still waiting for the city to rise up to this challenge.

Back in the ’70s Canada had a program some will remember called ParticipACTION that promoted a healthier lifestyle. Yet sadly since then we seem to have gone in the other direction, depending more and more on cars.

But armed with some of the above-mentioned actions, perhaps it’s not too late to make a u-turn.

Mark Wessel lives in Ridgeway, Ont. and is a passionate advocate for living  more sustainably at home and in the greater community. Visit www.markdouglaswessel.com

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