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Kids riding down road to ruin


Cars are not a kid’s best friend.

In fact, just the opposite: Because kids ride instead of walk, cars help make them fat. Cars pollute the air kids breathe. And cars kill them by going too fast.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that part of children’s inactivity is because they move everywhere by car,” said Dr. David McKeown, the medical officer of health for Toronto. “Children are driven to school, driven to events. The communities we live in often make it difficult for parents to move their children around in any other way.”

Communities designed for cars are not the best place for kids, experts say, and one key to safer and better communities is better planning: more destinations within walking distance, greater use of dedicated bike lanes and keeping kids away from traffic.

The dilemma has sparked an emerging disccussion, and now a group of transportation experts and children’s health officials have begun working toward the day our neighbourhoods will be safer — because they’ll be built for kids, not cars.

The Mississauga-based Centre for Sustainable Transportation has formed a children’s transportation task force that’s trying to find ways to reverse the effects of sprawl, which promotes two- and three-car families.

The centre also backs programs aimed at persuading parents — who may believe that a ride to school is the best thing — that walking to school is the safer and healthier choice.

Accomplishing that calls for a novel set of prescriptions:

  • Bike lanes separate from roads and sidewalks.

  • Sidewalks moved farther away from busy roads.

  • Ensuring public transit is “safe and welcoming” for children by designing better bus routes that minimize or eliminate the need for transfers.

  • Designing cars so their pollution-spewing tailpipes are on the driver’s side, away from the curb.

It won’t be easy. And sometimes the most obvious solutions are the worst — if you’re a driver. Slapping a lower speed limit, say 20 or 30 km/h on residential streets, while safe, would lead to chaos, according to participants at a meeting of the think tank this week.

But Richard Gilbert, director of research for the centre, defended the lower speed limit idea as safest for everybody.

“The historic approach is to let the traffic continue as it always does and train pedestrians and cyclists to be safer,” said Gilbert. “But if you look at it from the kids’ perspective, 20 kilometres an hour makes much more sense.”

The think-tank sprang from a movement among transportation planners, developers and land-use planners in Halton and Peel who gathered about a year ago, wondering how to build more child-friendly neighbourhoods. The movement has since spread provincially and may go national. About 70 people met this week, including local councillors, municipal planners, school board representatives, health officials, provincial representatives and environmental groups.

They hope to table guidelines in the spring that the province will endorse and municipalities will adopt.

There’s one catch: parents.

They’re the ones who will have to let their kids walk. They’ll have to reorganize after-school activities. They’ll have to slow down — their lives and their cars — for this to work.

Cathy Dandy, spokesperson for Toronto Parent Network, says parents aren’t lazy; they’re responding to outside pressures. Some find driving a time-saver; some like knowing their kids got to school safely and on time.

The task force is producing a guidebook aimed at parents, promoting ideas such as walking school “buses” and getting parents to think about:

  • How many of their daily car trips could be replaced with walking or cycling.

  • Whether they’re good role models for physical activity.

  • Turning the car engine off to avoid idling for long periods.

“Parents are a key part of this, (but) it’s Catch 22,” Gilbert said. “The parent drives the kid to school because the parent is concerned in part about traffic. But by driving the kid to school, the parent then worsens the situation. I don’t think there are any simple answers except that parents have to be involved in this.”

The experts say the U-turn in thinking is desperately needed for the sake of children’s health.

“We are facing an epidemic of obesity among children, which is going to have very serious long-term consequences for their health as adults,” said McKeown. “Shifting the way in which we move around in the community to modes that don’t create as much pollution is going to have a big impact on the community as a whole.”

The latest data from an ongoing study of transportation habits in the GTA shows that children age 11 to 15 made 83 per cent more car trips to school in 2001 than in 1986. It’s not hard to draw a link between all that riding around and the fact that two in five Canadian children are overweight, with one in five obese.

“Walking to school five days a week can be the equivalent of two one-hour-long phys-ed classes,” said Gilbert. “It’s not the organized physical activity that’s so important, it’s the general level of activity.”