I Love Walk & Roll - Active Transportation for Healthier Communities




MARCH 28, 2024

In today's fast-paced world, amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life, finding ways to incorporate physical activity into daily routines can often seem like an added challenge. At the same time, schools and municipalities struggle with traffic congestion and safety in and around school parking lots. What if we could tackle both problems with one very doable idea?

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) has spearheaded an initiative called “On the Move.” Essentially, this program promotes active transportation to and from schools, advocating for healthier lifestyles and safer communities. But what is active transportation?  I’m glad you asked!

In the latest episode of Beyond The Bell, host and Mental Health Lead, Chantelle Quesnelle brings you an insightful conversation with Sherry Diaz, a public health nurse with the SMDHU. Sherry works at the forefront of the Chronic Disease Prevention Program, focusing on initiatives that promote health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. 

In her chat with Chantelle, Sherry shares valuable insights about the importance of active transportation, particularly concerning school commutes, and offers practical tips for families to incorporate active travel into their daily routines. Sherry, tell us a little bit about active transportation and why it is so important:

Sherry:  Essentially, it means using your own body to get from point A to point B. It goes beyond recreational activity. It’s a purposeful movement like walking and cycling to go to school, to work, shopping, or to visit friends… things like that. 

Chantelle: It's kind of simple when you think about it, but probably like many things, a little more complicated in practice. What are some important factors to consider as we're thinking about a person’s ability to engage in active transportation?  

Sherry: We need to consider what type of infrastructure is available that supports the traffic flow and speed limits, and the safety concerns that people often have. If there are … sidewalks that are connected and well maintained in all seasons; where the facilities are that you need to get to in relation to where you live; how the traffic flow impacts people's comfort; are bike lanes available and are they on the road? Working with our municipalities is important if we are to influence positive changes in the direction of encouraging active transportation.

Chantelle: Could we shift then and think about why this is particularly important around the school routine?

Sherry:  I think we're all well aware of the traffic and safety concerns that exist around our schools at the beginning and the end of the school day. [Along with health concerns] there are a lot of environmental concerns too with idling vehicles. Compared to myself, walking and wheeling to school was just the norm when I was a child. And what's happened over time is that we've now got this culture of driving to school, and we're not entirely sure how that all has evolved. Not only are there fewer students walking or wheeling to school, but there is definitely a reduction in the number of children meeting the minimum requirement of daily physical activity.

There’s also a social opportunity that’s being missed: to have a conversation with a parent or caregiver or to engage in understanding more about your neighbourhood and community. And that is a life skill, to be able to feel comfortable navigating your community to get to school.

Chantelle: Yes, and through the mental health lens, we know that one in five children and youth in Ontario has a mental health challenge. About 70% of those challenges have their onset in childhood and adolescence. So building these healthy habits, like movement, into our routine, yes we’re developing a life skill, and we’re also creating a mechanism to help increase our mental wellness and promote wellbeing. 

What about our families that have to take a bus because that is the transportation that they have? Are there recommendations for how they might think of active transportation?

Sherry: Yes, we have lots of families whose children are taking a school bus. So depending on where the bus stop is… are there opportunities to walk or wheel there? 

What we're seeing as well is that many families who have students designated to be on a school bus are choosing to drive. So then the student is not in their seat on the bus, and then we have another vehicle added to that school neighbourhood, contributing to the traffic congestion and safety concerns. We have heard from families that don't feel it's very safe for [their] child to walk or wheel to school. But in choosing to drive, it adds to the unsafe conditions. Then those who want to or maybe have no choice but to walk or wheel, are at a disadvantage.  Maybe you could think about opportunities to park further away… so that you've left the car out of that school neighbourhood, and haven’t contributed to the traffic congestion. This gives you and your child a little bit of time to be physically active together before arriving at school.

The reality is, we know that there are lots of circumstances, appointments, and other things going on… and you can’t do it 100% of the time. But even small shifts in behaviour so that you can do it some of the time are going to make a big difference overall. 

It’s clear, in our fast-paced lives, where every minute counts, finding opportunities for physical activity can seem like an uphill challenge. But we can tackle that challenge and the safety around schools at the same time! By encouraging kids to walk or bike to school whenever possible, we're not only promoting healthier habits, but also making our streets safer. Win, win!  So, let's support each other in making a few small changes, and work towards a future where the streets are bustling with kids walking and biking to school once again.

Listen to the full audio version on Beyond the Bell Podcast below:

If you want to learn a little more about the shift from walking to driving to school, check out this video, "Why did kids stop walking to school?" from the Vancouver based YouTube channel, @About Here