An important challenge today is designing our cities and streets to facilitate heathier, more active lifestyles. This has a number of impacts for all age groups, including children. At the neighbourhood level, the quality and safety of streets influences a child’s ability to experience their community. Nowhere is this more keenly observed than with the trip to and from school each day. Whether by walking or wheeling, driving or taking the bus, the trek to school is a fixture of neighbourhood life. However, the quality and safety of local streets affects the choice of whether a child walks, wheels or gets driven to school each day.
The Daily School Route (DSR) is an approach to active school travel that creates active transportation systems for kids with the aspiration of having 100% of students who are able, walking/wheeling to/from school daily. The DSR sees kids as ‘transportation users’ within their own system and creates a network of routes, called Student Streets, to help facilitate safe and effective active school travel.
The DSR provides tools, expertise, and strategies for school boards and municipalities to help develop effective routes-to-school programs. The Daily School Route uses high quality public engagement techniques along with on the ground observation and consultation with school communities to understand how kids are getting to school and the barriers and challenges they are facing.
In 2023, the DSR completed a report which presented a strategy for safer routes to school across Ward 1 of the City of Hamilton. It begins with an analysis of the ward overall, including student travel behaviour and current routes to school. From there, popular Student Streets are identified along with safety concerns that accompany them. Finally, improvements are proposed to facilitate safer school travel along these Student Streets.
The DSR Process
The DSR process is a continuous cycle of five phases. The first two phases provide a clear picture of the active transportation environment at a school, including current travel mode split, common active transportation routes (Student Streets), and barriers to active transportation. The third phase is the next step toward action, where we identify solutions to overcome the barriers identified in earlier phases. Phase four takes this information to municipal staff to assist with planning safe active transportation routes in the neighbourhood, helps school board staff understand how catchment boundaries and bell times may be barriers to active school travel, and it helps the DSR develop programming efforts with schools. Phase 5, Evaluation, involves cycling back to the first phase of engagement, to determine if the interventions are effective at achieving the desired behaviour change identified in the planning phase. This will determine whether to stop, change, or scale up the interventions.
Ward 1 is located in the western area of the City of Hamilton, between the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario. The ward straddles Highway 403 and encompasses the McMaster University neighbourhoods of Westdale and Ainslie Wood in the west, extending to Queen Street in the east. Between Fall 2021 and April 2023, engagement was conducted with schools from the HWDSB and the HWCDSB across Ward 1. The participating schools included:
- Canadian Martyrs Catholic Elementary School (CM)
- Cootes Paradise Elementary School (CP)
- Dalewood Elementary School (DW)
- Earl Kitchener Elementary School (EK)
- Kanétskare Elementary School (KT)
- Strathcona Elementary School (ST)
- Joesph Catholic Elementary School (SJ)
All schools in the ward were engaged to determine a baseline understanding of the travel choices, habits as well as the barriers and opportunities to improved travel. In total, 767 families participated in the DSR engagement. The data collected demonstrates that while 68% of respondents live within walking distance of their school (defined as 1.6 km), 67% usually walk to school with only 54% indicating they walk or wheel daily. Additionally, respondents indicated that the top change that would encourage active school travel is improved street safety. Further, having designated routes along with more people walking/wheeling are cited as other top changes that would encourage families to walk/wheel to school more often.
Ward 1 Walk/Wheel Routes
As part of the engagement process, respondents submitted the walk/wheel routes they use to get to their neighbourhood school. The results illustrated below all the walk/wheel routes submitted as part of the data collection period.
Popular Walk/Wheel Routes
The next level of analysis determined the most popular routes among those submitted as part of the engagement process. The heatmap below shows the streets where there is the highest concentration of routes. The darker the red, the more popular the route.
Walk/Wheel Heatmap: Ward 1
School boards determine which students are expected to walk to school as opposed to being bussed, depending on a number of factors including distance from their school. The distances for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) and Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) are 1.2 kilometers for junior and senior kindergarten and 1.6 kilometers for grades 1-8. The map below illustrates an analysis of the routes submitted (blue) overlayed with the walk zones (yellow) revealing that students are travelling the full distance of the zones in most circumstances.
Walk/Wheel Routes in the Context of Walk Zones
School Safety Zones
The existing approach to creating a safer pedestrian environment around schools involves the creation of School Safety Zones. The Ontario Highway Traffic Act allows for the creation of School Safety Zones within 150 metres along a road that adjoins the entrance to or exit from a school. Within this zone, a municipality can prescribe a rate of speed that is lower than the rate of speed otherwise prescribed for that portion of the road. In Hamilton, the City has implemented city-wide neighbourhood speed-limit reductions on local and minor collector roadways to 30km/h within designated school safety zones.
While Hamilton establishes School Safety Zones within 150 metres of a school boundary, the school boards have established a minimum of 1,200 metres zone beyond which bussing is provided for students. Therefore, there is a significant gap in size between the School Safety Zones and the distances that students are expected to walk. For example, the map below illustrates this gap, showing the 30km/h areas of the School Safety Zone in blue and the actual walk zone in yellow.
Note: School Shown is Earl Kitchener Elementary School
Overall Ward 1 Improvements
After analyzing the data collected from engagement and neighbourhood observations, a number of recommendations are proposed, including four ward-wide recommendations and a series of school specific recommendations.
Expand the size of Safety Zones to align with the walk distances established by the school boards. While School Safety Zones are limited to 150 metres, one potential solution could be to use Community Safety Zones which could be established/expanded to reach 1,200 metres from schools. As stated by provincial legislation, this is possible though a municipal by-law and would align with the distances students are actually walking to school.
Given the density of streets and alleyways in Ward 1, students tend to use multiple routes to get to school. This means that while specific Student Streets can be designated, the need to expand the Community Safety Zones to encompass more streets and spaces students actually use, is of particular importance in this Ward.
Redesign major stroads as streets in Ward 1. Stroads are a type of thoroughfare that is a mix of a street and a road. However, streets and roads are two different things. Streets are complex environments where pedestrians, cars and buildings are close to the sidewalk for easy accessibility, with many property entrances/exits to and from the street. In these environments, a high level of pedestrian activity is the indicator of prosperity. Successful streets are environments where humans, and human interaction, flourish. By contrast, the purpose of a road is to connect productive places to each other in an efficient manner. It is a high-speed connection between two places with wide lanes and limited entrances and exits.
Stroads are a mix of these two types. Stroads are typically unsafe, not friendly for pedestrians, and are underperforming from the standpoint of generating community wealth in terms of being a destination. A common issue with stroads is that engineering codes tend to emphasize speed and traffic flow rather than safety, so that stroads try to be “all things to all people” but end up failing in every way as a result.
In Ward 1, there are seven major stroads that are part of the active school travel environment:
- Queen Street
- Aberdeen Avenue
- Dundurn Street
- King Street West
- Main Street West
- Sterling Street
- York Boulevard
Ward 1 Stroads
These stroads not only contribute to a poor active school travel environment, they sometimes cut off streets and neighbourhoods from being part of the designated walk zone for a school, even if students live within the 1.2-1.6 km distance. In this case, a stroad results in certain students being classified as “Hazard” – meaning that a student lives within walking distance but receives bussing services because of an identified safety hazard.
In 2022, the City of Hamilton passed new guidelines to deal with these corridors. The Complete Streets Design Guidelines sets out categories for streets and then suggests how they should be designed to function better. However, the guide requires that each corridor needs to be categorized appropriately. Therefore, Ward 1 stroads need to be understood as an important part of the active school travel environment and categorized/redesigned to become pedestrian friendly streets.
Create signed routes to illustrate the location of Student Streets. These signs, already installed at some schools throughout Hamilton, indicate the distance to the neighbourhood school as well as provide the ability to create interactive content through QR codes.
Reduce speed limits within the school walk zones. This includes standardizing speed limits on the major arteries to 40 km/h. Time-limited reductions are proposed to be expanded all hours of the day. Finally, all the residential local streets within the School Walk Zones would be reduced to 30 km/h. Currently, this limit only applies to the geographically small 150m School Safety Zones.
These changes would address a priority concern of residents, which is unsafe vehicular traffic speed. In addition, this would create safer local streets that feed into the more popular Student Streets, thereby creating safer overall transportation network for kids to walk/wheel from their house to school.
Speed is a significant contributing factor in collisions and is directly correlated to the severity of the collisions and injuries. Reducing speed limits by 10 km/hr in areas concentrated with vulnerable populations, such as school walk zones, significantly reduces the risk of serious injury and fatality. Research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has demonstrated that if hit at 50 km/h there is a very high likelihood that a pedestrian would die. Comparatively, at 30 km/h the chance of death is 10%.
Some neighbourhoods in Hamilton have already have slower speed limits. The North End Traffic Management Plan, which was approved in October 2010, includes a number of measures to create safer streets in that neighbourhood. This included the reduction of speed limits across the neighbourhood (except James St.) to 30 km/h – not just around schools as is the case in current School Safety Zones. Further, there is an evaluation framework for this plan that considers safer streets and slower speeds as a matter of equity in the urban environment.
Globally, the movement to slower streets is gaining momentum. A number of cities are moving toward a standard 30km/h on local streets, including Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, Madrid and Cardiff.
A Student Street is a contiguous route to school that should be designed to be safe, convenient, and friendly for 100% of elementary school students to use for active transportation. Students are inventive in how they travel, always taking the most convenient route for them. In many neighbourhoods, this can mean venturing away from the roadway and using other facilities like parks, institutional land, commercial areas, alleyways, and neighbourhood cut throughs (both official and unofficial). Students connect these different land uses with their routes to school.
Through DSR engagement with school communities, families highlighted the routes they take when they use active transportation to get to school. Combining the route data with on-the-ground observations, as well as further input gathered from an additional route verification survey, results in the identification of Student Streets. Most schools feature 2-4 primary Student Streets that serve families coming from different directions. In general, several side streets feed into these routes as part of the journey to school.
School Specific Safety Improvements
DSR engagement also involves asking families about concerns along their routes to school. Here, specific conditions are identified (e.g., “turning cars are close to the curb when I am standing on the northwest corner”, or “poor winter maintenance through Victoria Park”). Overlaying our primary Student Streets with this data helps to understand where points exist that would maximize the effectiveness of interventions on student active transportation (e.g., an intersection near a school would have an impact on many students).
For each school, a number of safety improvements at particular locations were identified to assist with the implementation of the Student Streets. In general, improvements fell into two categories:
- Enhanced Intersection Design to Support Pedestrian Crossings
- Road Enhancements to Facilitate Speed Reduction
Example School Streets with Safety Improvement Locations Identified
In total, 74 improvements were identified in locations across Ward 1. Additionally, improvements in certain locations offered benefit to multiple schools and were identified to help with prioritization for implementation.
To date, there has been progress on a variety of issues outlined in the report. First, a number of signed Student Street routes are in the planning stage and will be installed by the end of the 2023-24 school year. Second, a Student Safety Zone Pilot was implemented at Strathcona Elementary School. For more information on this innovative pilot, click here – https://dailyschoolroute.org/project/footprint-project/
Finally, the DSR continues to work with City of Hamilton staff to facilitate the implementation of the safety improvements outlined in this report. For more information on the individual school results, please go to https://dailyschoolroute.org/ and choose the school you are interested in from the drop-down menu.