Ask anyone who grew up in the 20th century to describe their journey to school, and in all likelihood they’ll recount walking or riding their bikes with friends. For others, they might talk about taking a big yellow school bus, complete with uncomfortable vinyl bench seats. But no matter how they arrived there, a common thread would remain – being driven to school by their parents was a relatively rare custom.
Skip ahead a generation, and those practices have been flipped entirely on their heads. With the exception of those kids who live within steps of their school, most now load into the family vehicle, and are shuttled directly to the front curb outside.
Those with school-aged children can attest that the scenes outside their school during pick up and drop off can resemble the arrival and departure bays at YVR Airport. Parents are constantly jockeying for position, aggressively seeking that coveted space that gives their kids the shortest possible walk to the front door, seemingly unaware that their behaviour is putting every other student at risk.
It is this dangerous dynamic that inspired the community at Canyon Heights Elementary School – located at the base of Grouse Mountain in the District of North Vancouver – to attempt to break that vicious cycle of traffic induced by traffic, and encourage a return to more active means of travel. On December 4, 2015, they officially launched “Freedom Friday” – a weekly celebration focused on encouraging walking, cycling, or any other people-powered means to get to and from class.
The suburban school, with approximately 365 students from kindergarten to grade seven, is nestled among mainly single-family homes, where the vast majority of students live within a 15-minute walk. Despite this close proximity along relatively calm residential streets, prior to the first ever “Freedom Friday” event, a disappointing 57% of students arrived to school by automobile. This lead to bottlenecks along the adjacent two-lane Highland Boulevard, in North Vancouver, creating dangerous and uncomfortable conditions for the remaining 43% arriving by foot, bicycle, or public transit.
“Freedom Friday is about starting a discussion with the community,” explained Martyn Schmoll, a parent and member of the organizing committee. “We want adults and kids in the neighbourhood to start talking to one another about the issue of providing safe routes to school, without anyone feeling judged or discouraged.”
Carol Sartor, a member of the North Shore Safe Routes Advocates, takes that responsibility to heart. Each Friday, she stands outside the school and strikes up conversations with parents parked on the curb about the event; encouraging them to use the designated “Drive to Five” zones – areas where parking is easier to find, and their kids can still stretch their legs (and their brains) with a five-minute walk.
By interacting with the parents, Sartor helped a mother with two infant twins find a solution to getting her child to school without having to unload the entire car each time. Now, thanks to a community effort, they meet up with another family at the “Drive To Five” area, and her child walks to school with friends the rest of the way.
This community spirit also has a huge impact on welcoming newcomers to the area. Afshin Khazei, who immigrated to the region from Iran, enjoys the opportunity to meet with families in the neighbourhood, and help other newcomers get accustomed to local travel habits, which can be different from their own culture.
Even the students have an opportunity to participate in the fun. Each Freedom Friday, members of the Canyon Heights Parent Advisory Committee – lead by the energetic and affable Kulvir Mann – welcome parents and students with coffee and baked goods on the sidewalk, while one grade seven student is permitted to provide the music playlist for the morning. All in all, the event is about celebrating of the power of community, and preliminary results indicate it has been a roaring success.
Since the first Freedom Friday in December, the number of students using active travel modes (walking, cycling, scooting) has averaged 82%, up 39% from prior to the event. At the same time, driving has decreased by 39% to an average of 18%.
While these numbers only reflect trips made on Freedom Fridays, they are a sign the community is willing to work together to make their schools healthier, happier places. The true test will come during a month-long program in May, but if the past few weeks are any indication, it will prove to be a very exciting (and active) month!