School travel planner Arthur Orsini is on a mission to get Metro Vancouver kids walking
Wanting to walk to school rather than drive is not just nostalgia for my own youth, although that's part of what attracts me to the subject. Walking to school in the morning is so integral to what makes communities work, it surprises me that this has slipped so far off our collective radar.
Vancouver's senior planner and greenways goddess Sandy James introduced me to Arthur Orsini, whose job title is school travel planner. I'd never heard of such a thing before I met him a few weeks ago. Arthur has a young family, and before returning to the Vancouver area he lived and worked for a time in Auckland, New Zealand.
Orsini was recently involved in a study conducted by the City of Coquitlam on walking to school, and walking & cycling safety. After the pilot project, Orsini was contacted by the City of Coquitlam to assess all schools in their city. The Tri-City News recently reported comments from Coquitlam's Mayor on the topic:
“The analysis shows that kids aren’t walking to school,” said Mayor Richard Stewart. “This is one of the key priorities that our city ought to be engaged in to try and reduce the number of people who are driving to school and would walk if the route was safer.”
In the following interview, I spoke with Arthur about his work, and listened to his arguments for why cities and school districts must proactively work with young people to reduce car trips.
CityCaucus.com: Please describe how you got started working with the City of Coquitlam.
Orsini: I was a school travel planner in Auckland, NZ, and what that means is that I assess the situation in terms of walking and cycling to school. Then I craft together strategies that will increase the numbers of people walking and cycling to school.
There was a Canadian pilot project begun in four provinces that was modeling itself after what was happening in Auckland, and I was brought in to facilitate the B.C. project. I was working in the Coquitlam school district, and when that project was winding down I was approached by a city engineer who asked if I could do similar assessments for the rest of the schools in the city.
That was the first time I'd heard of a city taking that foundation look, and asking "what's it currently really like, and what are we up against if we really want to promote walking and cycling?"
There's a sense we've lost something in society today by habitually driving our kids to school. What are some of the not-so-obvious benefits of walking to school?
Reduced traffic congestion can encourage other people to walk, so there's a ripple effect. The most underrated element [of walking] is children's learning. If they walk to school in the morning, then very often they arrive a little bit early, and use that extra time for play.
So, not only are they walking to school but they're running around, playing tag for example, and socializing with their friends. Then they walk into the classroom with their blood pumping, fully awake. For the teachers that makes a big difference in alertness, attentiveness, and also in terms of cooperation and group work.
What about community public safety – do the additional "eye on the street" help with that?
Of course. And if you're only one child or one family walking down the block, not only does it not feel as safe, but socially you feel like you've made the wrong choice. If the majority are driving, then those who walk instead feel like they're a bit freaky, and not a part of the norm.
Many suburban neighbourhoods have been built without sidewalks, and they're very expensive if not impossible to install after the street has been built. Why should cities build sidewalks?
There are obvious benefits to sidewalks in residential neighbourhoods, like creating connections between families and children. It's not just about getting between destinations either, sidewalks benefit us because they allow people to "linger," and provide a public space to chat with friends and neighbours.
How can we design streets and sidewalks better?
We should try to make street corners that are close to a 90-degree angle, so that cars have to slow down to make that corner and look before they turn. Bigger corners, and even the "bus bulges" we're seeing on many streets in Vancouver, shortens the crossing distance for pedestrians and improves safety. It would be good if all schools had these extended corners as one of their assets.
What has been the reaction from parents and other stakeholders you've dealt with?
I've had complete support from everyone I've dealt with in terms of parents and schools paying attention to this topic. In my work promoting walking and cycling to school, the social aspect of it is key in my mind. Yes, health, environment & cost are important to consider, but when I'm talking with students who are leading walking clubs, I ask them to look out at traffic congestion and consider the driver.
I ask [the students] to imagine the people behind the wheel with a thought bubble over them as a way to remind them that they have no idea what the drivers are thinking. We don't know if they're going to the doctor, or if they're experiencing some concern or nervousness over a personal issue.
I'm always cautious about putting my own [pro-walking/cycling] agenda forward until I've given people some encouragement to reduce car trips, like parking 2 blocks away rather than coming right to the school. I use exercises to introduce new thinking. We live in a culture where the car is dominant, people use it habitually, and we have to begin to give everyone the realization that this can change.
Is Auckland dealing with car congestion better than Coquitlam, or are they facing the same challenges?
Auckland has worse problems with congestion than Vancouver, and that was the catalyst for them to do something about it. As a result they are putting significant resources and funds – expenditures as well as staff. Auckland is about the size of Ottawa, and they have 32 people (when I left there) working on school travel planning. In Metro Vancouver we have a couple people working on this, but we're only near the beginning of that phase.
In Auckland they recognize that they need this kind of service. You don't have to walk up to a school and make the case, and after 12 months your grant runs out. They see it as something like anti-racism education, as a long-term program to change attitudes.
I think we need to introduce this into the realm of local and provincial governments. Parents should know that not only is it normal to ask how kids get to school, but that the community is focused on ways to reduce car trips.
What would you say if you had a half-hour with B.C.'s Minister of Education to make the case for more walkability?
I would tell her that there is HUGE student leadership potential that is derived from promoting walking and cycling. The arena is their local environment, their local community. It's not like saving the rainforest or the Siberian tiger, it's something that students can invest their passion in.
All curriculum links have some connection to transportation, it's that important a topic. I'd like all schools to be able to set up some kind of school travel committee led by students who are engaging their peers and their parents.
What makes a good walking route to school as compared with a bad one?
People to walk with. Families. If you're a parent of a grade two student you may not know parents of kids in grade five, seven or kindergarten. Walking to school changes that – it helps to foster broader connections.
A good walking route to school is one where you're not really worried about safety because you have clear crossings through traffic areas, and you have a sidewalk, and your chance of meeting other people you know is quite high.
What are the common excuses that parents and caregivers use for not walking or cycling to school?
The most common excuse is time. I do not believe people are lazy – I think people have a habit of driving, so they rely upon that habit.
I also hear people say they're too "flustered" in the morning. They may even say, we intended to walk but, oh my goodness, we're too late. Hop in the car. The trick is to put the ownership of that decision upon the students, and encourage them to say they're going to walk. We did a survey and 88% of students said they didn't want to be driven to school.
So create a checklist. Is your lunch packed the night before? Is your knapsack packed and placed beside the door for the morning? This is the kind of stuff that it's hard to get schools to promote. Rather, you want kids themselves to identify the importance of being organized, and use their own "peer promotion" of these ideas.
One other thing to consider is if people realize how much time they spend driving to school, and waiting in the parking lot and waiting in advance, you begin to realize it really defies logic to arrive a half-hour early so you can get a good parking spot in order to avoid a ten-minute walk.
What about kids who attend schools outside their neighbourhood – is the message that local schools benefit students in ways that is not immediately apparent?
Sure. If you're going to the local school, and you're involved with it, then you're going to help to make it better. But also, in the larger scheme of things, on the weekend in the summer your children are more likely to socialize within the neighbourhood. You're not driving them across town to where other people live. In that way, both the kids and the parents benefit.
Some resources for our readers who are interested in improving the walkability of their communities: