Traffic ‘war zones’ to get worse with closures, councillor says
Hamilton’s public and Catholic school boards are being urged to follow the lead of their counterparts in Toronto, Ottawa and elsewhere by adopting a charter that commits to finding ways to help more kids to walk to school.
Ward 3 Councillor Sam Merulla is pushing for an active and sustainable transportation charter because he says too many students who live within walking distance are being driven to school, creating traffic “war zones” at the start and end of the school day.
But he said he’s also concerned the public board also doesn’t consider walking distances when closing schools and is about to exacerbate the problem by shuttering up to 11 elementary schools in the next couple of years, requiring more students to be bused.
“It’s not even part of the equation. The school board doesn’t have a policy,” Merulla said of the link between walking distances and closures. “If it’s bad now and all these proposed closures are coming forward, it’s only going to be worse.”
Merulla has drafted a resolution calling for a joint committee of city and school board representatives to develop a charter. It’s scheduled to go to council on March 26 after being endorsed at a board of health meeting on March 17.
Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board chair Jessica Brennan said she likes the idea of encouraging students to walk whenever possible, but school closures often make it difficult to avoid busing them to make the best use of the surviving schools.
She said in an ideal world the board would place all schools where “they make the most sense,” but that’s not always possible.
“We’re often locating students in buildings that have already been at a location for some time, and maybe that’s when the neighbourhood no longer has a critical mass of students,” Brennan said.
“I can understand his frustration. Having said that, though, the challenge is that where the buildings are right now may not be where the students are, so we have to be mindful of that as well. But it’s worth a conversation and I look forward to having it.”
Catholic board chair Pat Daly said he’d also be pleased to discuss the issue, but schools already encourage students to walk, including through initiatives that address safety barriers to doing so.
He said his board has also considered the impact on busing and walking distances when closing schools.
“That’s one factor. It’s not the only one, but we do consider it, for sure,” he said, adding the board has no control over parents who choose to drive kids who could walk. “If there are specific recommendations he (Merulla) has to make, we’re happy to listen.”
Merulla said parents must take some blame for the traffic tie-ups that have seen fisticuffs outside one school in his ward.
“I think parents are being overly generous with rides,” he said, which only contributes to obesity rates and prevents socialization of children. “There are so many negative aspects.”