Exploring Active Transportation 

 Show Transcript

Welcome to Beyond the Bell podcast, where you will get an inside look into school life. We cover school-related topics that support your child's education and well-being. As you listen along, we hope you'll gain insights for navigating school with your child and leave with a deeper sense of connection between school and home. Here's your host, Chantelle Quesnelle.

Chantelle: Welcome Simcoe Muskoka families to another episode of Beyond The Bell. We have Sherry Diaz here with us today. Sherry is a public health nurse with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit in the Chronic Disease prevention program.

Through this program, Sherry and her team engage with community partners such as schools, school boards, municipalities, and community organizations to promote health and reduce the risk for certain chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Sherry's program looks at reducing barriers and creating supportive environments so that everyone has the ability to make healthier choices to eat well and to be physically active and lower the risk for developing chronic diseases in the first place. Sherry is here with us today to talk about active transportation to and from school. This is a priority area for Sherry's team and we're excited to have her here with us today. Welcome, Sherri. 

Sherry: Oh, thank you, Chantelle. It's great to be here. Thanks for inviting me. 

Chantelle: It's nice that we're recording this on a nice warm sunny day. I don't know what it's like for our listeners when they're listening in. But um I'm certainly feeling motivated for some active transportation today. 

Sherry: Absolutely. Yeah.

Chantelle: I wonder maybe we could start off Sherry if you could just tell us a little bit more about what does active transportation actually mean? What is it? 

Sherry: So, active transportation essentially means using your own body to get from A to B, um, it's a little bit more than just, um, recreational, physical activity. Uh, it's walking and cycling with a purpose. Uh, so you're going to, uh, go to school, or you're going to work or visit friends, um, shop, visit shops and services, things like that. It's very purposeful. And so you're, you're using your own body through walking, cycling, wheeling of all sorts, um, using your own energy to get there. Um, so that's essentially what active transportation is.

Chantelle: It's kind of simple when you think about it, but probably like many things, uh, a little bit more complicated in practice. 

Sherry: There are a lot of factors that come into play in terms of impacting a person's ability to do that. So, yeah. And we'll talk a little bit more about that. 

Chantelle: I wonder, does it make sense to, to jump into that right now, around some of the factors that are important to consider or to keep in mind as we're thinking about active transportation?

Sherry: Sure. Um, so when we think about active transportation, um it, it differs depending on where you live, um what types of facilities um and infrastructure um is available. Um, also the policies that support um you know, the way traffic flows and speed limits and safety concerns that people often have. Um, so yeah, uh the way in which the community is designed. So if there are um, connected streets with facilities like sidewalks that are uh connected and well maintained in all seasons, but also um, where the uh things that you need to get to are located in relation to where you live. So how um the community is sort of laid out um and then the traffic flow um and volume and speeds impact people's uh comfort with that um bike lanes, whether they're, they're available and are they on the road?

Are they separated? What other types of facilities are available in the community, like trails that you can also utilize for both active transportation and recreation. But connecting trails with sidewalks and other uh cycling facilities or, or pedestrian facilities is also beneficial, especially for more rural communities. Often, urban centres are, are fairly well-developed in terms of that type of infrastructure. But those are very important considerations when we're encouraging active transportation and those are the kinds of things we like to work with our municipalities to try and influence positive changes in that direction.

Chantelle: Sure, I think it's really interesting when you start to, to think about all of those factors, and you listed many important infrastructure types of considerations of environmental considerations and policy considerations, safety considerations, for sure. I'm also wondering about some of the important considerations that might be within the individual or within the family as they're navigating, thinking about active transportation to and from school or work. 

Sherry: Absolutely. So there are real or perceived barriers um to active transportation. Um So two of the most common um barriers that people cite are uh weather and time. Um So there's um often, you know, um a perception that weather uh can, you know, is, is limiting in terms of people's ability to use active transportation um in some situations, especially as we start to have more extreme weather events. Yes, that can definitely be a barrier. But for the most part, I think it's a matter of perception. So as long as we have the um proper clothing and footwear, um you know, and, and what's needed to, you know, walk in the rain or walk in the snow, um you know, those that shouldn't necessarily be a barrier, especially if the distance that you're walking or cycling is a relatively, you know, walkable um distance. Um So it's not very far um in terms of your ability to get there. So, you know, a couple of kilometers. Um So yeah, and then um time, so people often perceive time to be a, a barrier. Um and depending on again where you're going, um and the infrastructure available sometimes, you know what to our surprise, it might actually even be quicker to use active transportation when you don't have to factor in the fact that, you know, if it's winter time, you've got to warm up, clean off your car and then if there is traffic congestion where you're going, parking issues, sometimes those things add or you, you need to wait in traffic, those things are definitely going to add to your time when perhaps you could have actually walked or wheeled to that location as quickly or maybe even quicker. Um, depending on, you know, what's going on in that neighborhood when you're trying to get there. So there are situations where active transportation can actually be a little faster. Um, especially when we're talking about congestion in school zones, um, which is, uh, quite prevalent unfortunately, in a lot of schools. 

Chantelle: Sure. Yeah, I really, yeah, I really like that reflection, um, as kind of a, a tip or takeaway for our parents and caregivers who are listening around if some of those barriers might be real or perceived and to just take a, take some time to reflect on some of those things because that might help with the action planning or with the small steps that a family might take to.

Um, um consider more active transportation or the moments within the day that that can happen. Is it a real barrier? Are there things that we really need to address practically or is it more of a perceived barrier that we can explore, maybe challenging it a little bit or trying to see if it um is a real barrier not through maybe some um trial and error or experimentation like the time example that you shared. 

Sherry: Yeah, definitely. Um And, and certainly, I think um there are real challenges too for, for some families too who have, you know, other younger children at home, and it's a lot of work to, you know, bundle them all up and um, you know, get them all off to a location like school. Um but uh you know, obviously too there,  it's complex in terms of decision-making and factors that need to come into play and what we need to do to support people to be able to make that choice, not just the infrastructure, but also socially. Um and um you know, how we can help one another out with those kinds of things too. So having an older student, maybe walking, um and a younger student, a neighbour helping out um another adult who's already maybe walking or wheeling that can uh bring another child with them. Um So yeah, there are lots of things to consider socially as well. 

Chantelle: Yeah, I really, I really like that awareness of kind of those um the intersections and overlaps between the infrastructure, environmental policy considerations, and then also those social considerations or um kind of real barriers that a family might be experiencing um to kind of think of it a bit more holistically because sometimes as things shift, maybe a community is addressing some of the infrastructure policy barriers that could help enable families to um make some of those changes into their routine.

And it's kind of both things need to happen. 

Sherry: Yes, definitely. It's a very complex situation…

Chantelle: Absolutely.

Sherry: …that requires uh you know, comprehensive solutions. And uh yeah, and that's some of our work as well. 

Chantelle: Yeah, I probably one of the reasons why it's one of the priorities with, with your team, right? And why we're talking about it here on the podcast. But it, it, it is something that needs to be addressed at the community level as well as the individual level. 

Sherry: Yes, definitely. 

Chantelle: So maybe we could shift then, Sherry to think about, you know, why is this particularly important around the school routine? Because when we think about active transportation, we're certainly also talking to adults and how they might use active transportation to and from work or appointments or social gatherings, um transportation with a purpose. Um But we're talking today specifically around school. So can you help kind of paint the picture of the school's context in particular? 

Sherry: Yes. So um as I mentioned earlier, I'm I think we're all well, aware of, um, the traffic and safety concerns that are, uh, uh, exist around our schools in, uh, you know, the morning at the beginning of the school day and at the end of the school day. And, um, uh, you know, there are lots of concerns in terms of safety in that regard. Um, and I think too, like environmental concerns with idling vehicles and, um, and just the fact that we're seeing more and more children, students being driven to school, there's a trend here. Um as compared to myself, when I was a child walking and wheeling to school was just the norm. And what's happened over time is that we've not now got this culture of driving to school. And um we're not entirely sure how that all has evolved.

There are a number of things that would have contributed to that over time, but definitely we have seen that trend and what results is what we're seeing in school neighbourhoods at the beginning and the end of the school day. Um we also know that um so in addition to fewer students who are walking or wheeling to school, um we know that um there is definitely a reduction in the number of children who are meeting the 24-hour movement guidelines. So um the sort of the minimum requirements of at least having 60 minutes of moderate to vig- uh vigorous physical activity on a daily basis has declined.

Um So we're really trying to look at, you know, comprehensive solutions to deal with multiple issues and problems. And one of the ways that we can do that is we can look at: OK, so where do children go and spend most of their waking hours? Uh school age children…

Chantelle: School

Sherry: … is in that setting? That's an area that we can maybe influence. And what does that environment look like? And how is it that we can change the, the car culture? Um so that we can have children experiencing more physical activity as part of their daily routine through active school travel. Um and trying to um you know, con contribute to that um physical activity that's needed to be healthy um just through your routine and, and it not be about having to go to be along to be part of a sports team necessarily not, not that those things aren't good, those things are great. But um it doesn't have to be that, you know, you're, you're um engaged in those kinds of organized um events for physical activity or teams and things like that. But what can we do as part of our daily routine to just make it a natural thing to incorporate physical activity into that? So this is one way that that can happen because children are going to school on a regular basis. And so, yeah, um looking at that differently and then also it's, it's sort of developing a skill, like it's a life skill to think about how you get from A to B and, and is it always that you need to be driven or um you know, uh being transported in a vehicle? Can that happen in some ways even for part of the way or some of the time in an active way? Um So those are uh really important uh considerations when we're looking at active school travel. Um in addition to creating a, a healthier, safer school environment, um school uh neighbourhood. Um So, yeah, that's what we're looking at in a more comprehensive way. And then also just in terms of regular physical activity and, and how that impacts the student's ability to be ready to learn. Um so, if you've had the opportunity to engage um in some uh exercise and physical activity before you start your school day, then your, your brain is fired up, and it's ready to go.

Um And perhaps you've had some time to really kind of like enjoy some s- uh social opportunity with your, your parent or caregiver on the way. Um And, and have that time to, to have a conversation or to engage in understanding more about your school neighbourhood and your community. And, and that is a life skill to be able to feel comfortable and, and navigate through your community. And, and uh yeah, to be aware of the things that you need to know, to go through and walk through your community, to get to school.

So it's a life skill. And then certainly and from a, so we're talking about the benefits of physical activity for your body and being healthy but- and readiness for learning - but also, of course, the mental health benefits. So we know that regular physical activity can improve negative emotions, like anxiety or depression can reduce stress in children. Um so that, that's really important in addition to that readiness for learning or the, the academic perf- uh performance sort of aspects of that. And then at the end of the school day, if your ability to be physically active on your way home as part of your, your trip to get back home, then of course, that allows you to decompress from the, the school day and spend some, maybe some downtime just having a conversation with friends or your, your caregiver, or your parent. So there are lots of benefits for that child in terms of development and health. 

Chantelle: Yeah, and I know for me, you know, always bringing in that mental health lens, um I know that when we talk about some of those foundational pieces of, of, of mental health and wellness, we, we talk about a lot of, a lot of things, sleep being one of them, of course, but certainly around moving our bodies. Um And we know that, you know, one in five children and youth in Ontario has a mental health challenge and that about 70% of those challenges have their onset in childhood and adolescence. And so when we build in these, these healthy habits, like movement into our routine, yes, we're developing a life skill, and we're also creating a mechanism to, to help increase our mental wellness and develop a, a tool that promotes well-being, like you said, um the movement in our bodies um and how that supports our, our, our brain, absolutely. Also the, the social skills we might be developing and engaging in that sense of connection with whoever we might be chatting with along the way, being outside and feeling the, the sun and the wind. Um, and uh, just being outside in, in nature as well. And so lots of things that can be helpful. I'm also thinking though, what about our families that, you know, have to take a bus because that is the transportation that they have? Are there recommendations for, um, if that is a factor for a family, how they might think of active transportation? 

Sherry: Yeah, that's a great question. So, of course, yes, we have lots of families whose children are, um, you know, taking a school bus. So we would sort of encourage them to think about if, depending on where the bus stop is. Um, are they driving the child to the bus stop or is there an ability for the child to walk, um, or, or wheel in some way with like rollerblades or a scooter or something? Um, you know, so are there opportunities, um, to, to walk or wheel for that portion that you're taking to, to get to your bus stop? But then also, um, I think what we're seeing as well is that many families who have students who are, uh, designated to be on a school bus are choosing, um, uh, more often than not to actually drive.

Um And therefore then the student is not in their seat on the bus. And then we have another vehicle or more vehicles that are being added to that school neighbourhood and contributing to the traffic congestion and safety concerns, which is problematic when um you know, we have heard from families who will say, well, I, I don't feel it's very safe for my child to walk our wheel to school, so I drive them. But what happens is we're contributing when we choose to drive, we're contributing to that unsafe um condition, the unsafe conditions and the traffic congestion and those who want to or maybe have no choice but to walk or wheel because they don't have access to a vehicle or don't own a car or the parent or caregiver doesn't drive.

Those students are at a disadvantage because now they don't have a choice. But yet there's more and more people who are in that uh school zone in vehicles um who have chosen to drive when it's maybe not always necessary. So I think we would just encourage, um, families to think differently about that. And I mean, it's not gonna be possible all the time for parents and caregivers to always choose active transportation. Um, the reality is we know that there are lots of circumstances, appointments, and other things going on that just not, does, it does not make that feasible? And that's not really what we're saying. It's not that you can do it 100% of the time, but even small shifts in behavior so that you can do it, some of the time is going to make a big difference overall in the school population when people are making those choices when they can. But also then if there are opportunities to park further away in a parking lot, a public parking space and walk part of the way, um that's beneficial as well so that you've left the car out of that school neighbourhood um and not contributed to the traffic congestion and you and your child have a little bit of time to be physically active together before they arrive at school.

Chantelle: I love those little tips for consideration and then thinking about not only the factors um around the individual or the family, but also having a community focused mindset as well. To think about the bigger picture that those, those decisions, those actions have on their larger, on the larger school community can be very helpful. Because we, we are so connected, and it's important to think, um, of the, of how, when we all kind of make those small commitments or small changes that it can contribute to factors that really help other people. 

Sherry: Yes. And, and climate change is a reality and I mean, we have to think about, you know, all those idling cars unnecessarily, um, not good for those, you know, I, you know, those young people who are, you know, breathing in that air at that level of car exhaustion. Um So I think that that's another important consideration for health as well and creating a healthy school environment. 

Chantelle: Sure. So I know that the health unit has an initiative, and it's, it's certainly not in, in all schools, but um maybe some families who are listening have heard of it. I'm hoping maybe you could share a little bit more about the On The Move initiative, Sherry? 

Sherry: Yeah. So our um health unit has been involved. Um We received some Ministry of Education funding um several years ago prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we were um utilizing — so that was an application we put um into the um through green communities, Canada to the Ministry of Education in partnership with Municipalities and school boards locally. And we were um you know, successful in receiving that funding and what that led to is us um collaborating with those same partners to um initiate this On The Move initiative. So On The Move is just the catchphrase and the sort of the brand recognition that we're using for active school travel um programming in Simcoe Muskoka. Um so, um those partners got together and there was a sort of a selection of schools um to sort of pilot the initiative. What it involves essentially is our public health nurses from our program are working with um individual schools as a facilitator. And um we are essentially pulling together a small team or using an existing eco-schools or uh feel-healthy school sort of team. Um And then um we work with them to kind of do assessment. So we assess the school neighbourhood through a walk about and collect some information around traffic and travel patterns at the beginning and end of the school day. Um We also look at um a family survey and a classroom survey to kind of gather data around what the opportunities and barriers are for people to use active school travel, and then that paints a picture for us and tells us sort of what's going on in that school community. And um from that, our team will then um uh establish some priorities and build an action plan and then carry out that action plan throughout the course of the school year, so implementing a very comprehensive approach to that, so it might be that we're engaging with the municipality to look at um the signs, uh school signage um in that neighborhood, um no parking or what um infrastructure is available like the sidewalks. What condition are they in? Um, how well-connected are they? Um, whether there's uh facilities for cycling–it might be some of those infrastructure things, but it might be in education or encouragement. So, and having a, a fun school event, like a celebration of a walk and wheel, a walk and wheel day, or it might be that we're um running a little um you know, campaign at the school for a challenge for the month, um encouraging um families to think differently about their travel. Um It could be uh oh jeez, there's so much um so that action plan then just gets carried out, and then we evaluate sort of, are we making a difference? Are we looking at things? Are we addressing some of the barriers? Are we looking at opportunities that we have within our existing school community that we can take advantage of? And then are we starting to make a difference in terms of seeing those travel patterns more active and less uh vehicle congestion and safety concerns? And that action plan usually carries over from one school year to the next. So that's the role that we essentially are playing as a facilitator. But we also have a website, um for this initiative, um it's hosted on our Health Unit website and um it, it's uh www.simcoemuskokaonthemove.org.* And you can um find all kinds of information and um uh uh resources for all the different uh sort of levels, school boards, municipalities, all the different partners, even parents um in any of those school committees. So we have information and resources there. And so some of that funding also contributes to uh a little bit of money that went to those pilot schools to develop resources or run initiatives. But then also we used it to develop um resources like flags and banners and posters that can be put up at the school um that have the on the move logo and characters. So um we continue to work with schools where there's interest in readiness. We do have some capacity, sort of limitations ourselves, but we like to work with our partners and, and we certainly can work at different levels with different schools um ,depending on what the needs are. So, uh yeah, that's our Simcoe Muskoka on the move initiative. There's also a steering committee, I should mention too, that we are looking at um that we have underway um that's been meeting for a couple of years and that steering committee meets um every few months, and it involves members from different school boards and municipalities and community organizations along with us from public health, and we brainstorm and talk about broader regional issues, um and look at things like policies and other things at a higher level than the individual school level. So it's very multifaceted. 

Chantelle: Yeah, I really like um that framing because it, it does uh tell everybody that's listening here, some of the initiatives that are happening from that um community infrastructure, environmental scan that you talked about. Um some of those things that are happening at that more system level. But then also where we started that conversation was also around kind of a mini version of that that families can do on their own to reflect on um what that might look like for their travel to and from school or, or for the adults that are listening to and from work when, when that's possible. And so I think that's really nice that we've kind of covered both of, of those areas. I'm wondering if one of the concerns um that families have regarding active travel is around safety, whether it's around um a crossing that a student has to make or a busy intersection when there are concerns related to safety, um that parents and, and caregivers have, what is the best next step? Who should they be talking to? 

Sherry: You can start with making a phone call to your local uh municipal counsellor of the – who's designated to your schools in your ward um and um speaking with them about your concerns, that's a good first step. Um Additionally, you can reach out um to your municipal um staff through uh whatever mechanisms for communication there are on those municipal websites. So, um sending in uh you know, sort of a question or a concern about a particular neighbourhood and that would get funnelled through to, you know, their traffic services or engineering department depending on what the concern is. Um, and, uh, look for engagement that way to talk about what you're concerned about. So that would be a couple of suggestions I would have as a first step. 

Chantelle: Yeah, I think that's great. I, I think the important piece is that if there are some of those concerns to make sure we're voicing them um and bringing them forward because if one family has them, it's likely that others do too and, and sometimes sharing that forward can be the step that, that makes some of that, that change happen or that awareness raising to, to put some um strategies in place to address that issue. 

Sherry: Yeah. And our municipalities locally have been very supportive um in terms of responding to some of these needs that we've been identifying in school zones, we are very pleased with their level of support and involvement and are very encouraged by the fact that they're wanting to work and trying to make differences so that we do have safer um schools, school communities and broader communities where people can use active transportation more frequently. It's good for our, our individual health but good for the community overall as well. They, they, they want to reduce traffic congestion and, and um you know, issues that are contributing to, you know, poor air quality and things like that. That's, those are also goals for our municipality and to be safe to have safe communities as well. 

Chantelle: Yeah, we're all kind of in, in it together. Um, on this, I'm, I'm wondering, Sherry as we kind of wrap up our episode here. Was there anything you had hoped I asked about or something that you wanted to share that we hadn't gotten to yet? 

Sherry: Oh, that's a great question. Thank you for offering that. Um I would just, I, I guess I just wanna just reiterate that, you know, this is not about pointing fingers or laying blame in any way. It's about just encouraging people to maybe think differently and give it a try and see if you can make this happen even um once in a while because if we can get more and more people that, you know, just try it out and, and maybe feel inspired or encouraged by it or maybe realize that, you know, what it, it's easier than I thought. Um, you know, that they, they would be motivated to try it a little more often and, and when we start to see small changes like that over a broader um school community or even the community at large, those are big changes overall. So, um I would just reiterate that, and um and then I would just encourage anyone who has an interest in learning more about, you know, active transportation or active school travel to reach out to us at the HealthUnit. Um We're more than willing to have a conversation with you if there are specific questions you have or certain types of resources you're looking for or who to connect with in the community. Um so, yeah, we welcome that as well. 

Chantelle: Amazing. Well, I, I've really appreciated um this episode, Sherry and I, I'm kind of thinking about my, my own family and, and some of the small changes that, that we can think about as well and to reflect on those real and perceived barriers. And also I think the, the hope and, and optimism I feel in terms of um some of these challenges being addressed at the community level and having people like your team at the Health Unit, really partner with schools and, and communities to um put some of these uh strategies and infrastructure and considerations in place to support families in that decision-making and to increase the opportunities for active transportation to and from school. So I found this conversation to be very um yeah, o- optimistic, especially as we go into the spring weather.

Sherry: Yeah, that's great, Chantelle. I'm glad you've enjoyed it. I, I appreciate the opportunity. I've enjoyed the conversation as well. And hopefully this um you know, holds some meaning for your audience in some way and that they can see that, you know, this is possible for them to, to try it out. So, thank you for this. 

Chantelle: Absolutely. 

Sherry: Yeah. 

Chantelle: Well, listeners, we hope this episode gave you some helpful information to think about transportation to and from school and maybe even work. We hope that we can shift our current car culture to consider the ways we can fit active transportation into daily routines, even just a little bit for our physical health, our mental health and the benefit of our communities. A big thank you to Sherry and the Chronic Disease Prevention Program at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. And thank you so much for joining us on Beyond the Bell. 

Thanks for listening to Beyond The Bell podcast. We hope you found today's episode helpful. 

Beyond the Bell is brought to you by the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and our Catholic Parent Involvement Committee. It's hosted by Chantelle Quesnelle. Pauline Stevenson is our executive producer. Episodes are produced and edited by Portage Creative. You can find our show notes and previous episodes on our podcast website, beyondthebell.ca. 

If you like today's episode, leave us a review. If you have any suggestions for future episodes or any questions or comments about Beyond the Bell podcast, you can send an email to info@smcdsb.on.ca. Thanks again for joining us. We'll see you next time.

*The link to On The Move can be found on www.simcoemuskokahealth.org, under the Topics menu header, then Physical Activity along the side menu.