School Streets in Vancouver

Selkirk Traffic

This is what our elementary school usually looks like at drop-off and pick-up time. The vast majority of kids walk or bike but enough are driven that the streets around the school are pretty hectic.

Selkirk School Street

This month, the main street in front of the school has been reimagined as a kid-friendly, car-free space as part of the City of Vancouver’s School Streets. We’re only 2 days into a 4-week program, but the results so far are pretty inspiring. Instead of busy traffic with cars stopping and parking awkwardly, we’ve had dance parties, street hockey, and bike obstacle courses.

Selkirk School Street

And lots of freezies.

Selkirk School Street

One of the key people in making this happen has been my lovely, talented, and hard-working wife Emily. She and a few other parents on our school’s active travel committee were key in rallying the school behind the idea, applying to the city program, and organizing all the volunteers to make it happen.

Selkirk School Street

I’ve done two volunteer shifts helping to put up and take down the barricades, including the first Monday morning it went live. I was prepared for angry motorists complaining about the inconvenience. I was ready to de-escalate and calmly explain why the street was closed when they honked and yelled at me.

Surprisingly, I’ve yet to see anyone get upset. I’ve seen a few confused looks on drivers’ faces when they see a looming barricade on a street they would normally drive down, but everyone seems to be adapting to the closure. There was one guy who found his car parked between the barricades. When he was asked if could wait until the street reopened before he started driving (we would have let him drive out slowly if he was in a rush), he said “Sure, no problem” and then went for a 10-minute walk. Amazing.

Selkirk School Street

The mornings have been generally quieter as kids only have a few minutes to play before school starts. This morning, a bunch of girls laid down in the middle of the street. It didn’t look that comfortable, but you could tell they were relishing the opportunity to take over a space that normally is off-limits to them.

As another parent volunteer said in an interview with CBC Radio, “It helps kids imagine a city that’s designed for them, not cars.”

Selkirk School Street

The afternoons have been busier, as kids have more time to enjoy the space before going home. On Monday, we had a DJ and freezies for the kickoff. Every Tuesday (including today), the road is closed for an hour and more games are available for the kids to play with.

School Streets

Beyond the community building that comes with a daily street party, there’s a more important goal for the program – to encourage more kids to walk and bike to school. Too many kids are driven to school today, and that creates safety problems (which only further disincentivizes walking) and increases air pollution (enough to impact general test scores).

This week, I’ve noticed that the streets around the school all have less traffic on them. One worry before the program started was that traffic would just shift and overwhelm the streets that are still open, but that hasn’t happened. This is the 3rd year the City of Vancouver has run School Streets, and they’ve found that 20% fewer kids are driven to school when the program is active, with more kids walking and biking.

About Here published this great mini-documentary a few days ago – “Why Did Kids Stop Walking to School?” I highly recommend watching it (keep an eye out for the School Streets shoutout at the end when it talks about solutions).

One of the more surprising findings is that children have been increasingly losing their independence since the 1970s, and walking to school is one part of that. In the ’70s and ’80s, children as young as six-years-old were encouraged to walk to school and the local corner store by themselves.

Our daughter is 6 years old. Our school is only 270 meters from home. Why doesn’t she walk without an adult?

Part of it is societal pressure and expectations, but it’s also a fear that she’ll be hit by a car. 99% Invisible did an excellent episode on the Japanese First Errand culture, and how the way Japanese cities are designed gives kids more freedom. I’d love to have more of that in our neighbourhood and city. One small solution is building a safer environment for kids to get to school so that more of them can walk and bike on their own.

So a huge “thank you” to Emily, the school’s active transport committee, the City of Vancouver’s transportation department, and all the volunteers and parents helping to make School Streets a reality. I hope it leads to lasting changes, builds new independent habits, and helps the kids reimagine our public spaces.

School Street


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s