Every year administrators and trustees hear complaints about the parking situations around our schools. While details vary site to site, most of the complaints carry a common theme - there are not enough parking spots, and the chaos resulting from too many cars in not enough space is putting students at risk. Parents are right about the safety concern. Unfortunately the solution to the challenge may not be what many parents want to hear.
The most commonly requested solution to this issue is increased capacity. Concerned parents suggest that if only there were more parking, the problem could be licked. Sadly this is just not so. Schools were not designed with automobiles in mind. Community schools are built on the premise that students would walk to them or be delivered by bus. Schools have only a limited number of parking spaces, and these are allocated mostly for staff who need to be on site all day. A few additional spots are available for parents and visitors with the understanding that such vehicles will be coming and going and the spots can be used by several persons throughout the day. At most schools there is neither space, nor resources available to increase the number of parking stalls, and even if there were, increased capacity would only lead to increased numbers of vehicles, compounding an already serious safety issue.
The real answer to our traffic challenge lies in reducing the number of vehicles. In the past walking to school was common - even seen as a rite of passage. Today when parents are asked "why they don't let their students walk or ride to school?" two answers prevail - convenience and safety.
Fearful that their children may get accosted by bullies, strangers, criminals, animals, rain, cold, snow, allergies or any other number of perils, many parents simply will not let their children go to school without adult supervision. Many parents pop their students in the car and drive them a few blocks before they head off to their daily routines. Ironically, the greatest danger for students who ARE allowed to walk to school becomes the other parents driving their kids.
Also ironic is the fact that in trying to keep their children safe, parents who drive their students may actually be contributing to their children's overall unhealthiness. Active Health Kids Canada (AHKC) reported that less than 7% of school age children get the minimum amount of daily exercise recommended by the Canadian Physical Activity guidelines. Walking to school would help correct this situation.
Certainly the school board has a responsibility towards maintaining safe facilities. Many parents have come forward with excellent suggestions including improved signage, volunteer or paid parking attendants, stop and drop zones or the establishment of pick up sites a few blocks from the school. Many of our schools have more easily accessible parking as close by as a 5 minute walk. Other northern jurisdictions have successfully implemented no parking zones around all public schools. The keys will be education, enforcement and cooperation.
The move to safe drop off and pick up areas requires drivers to be willing to park further away, to know what options are available, and for parents to allow students to walk greater distances to school. In some cases, it may indeed be time to examine redesigning school access routes or changing parking bylaws. Lots and driveways can become dated, and it never hurts to listen to new ideas. Similarly, the school board needs to work with municipal authorities to enforce, examine, review or revise traffic and parking bylaws with an eye to improving student safety and slowing or eliminating dangerous traffic patterns.
Keeping students safe is a worthy goal. Driving them everywhere is not the best answer. Finding better solutions to easing before and after school traffic will include solutions that slow people down. Having students get to school under their own power is better for the students, the environment and the community. Teaching parents to use parking alternatives that involve stopping safely further from the buildings can also help. Even one accident involving a student pedestrian is an accident too many. Working together we can all take steps to ensure our students get to and from school safely.