Walking to School: Not as Easy as it Sounds

Walking to school is not as easy as it sounds these days. For starters, Ottawa has four different school boards: English Public, English Catholic, French Public, French Catholic. Plus French Immersion, over a dozen private schools, and many programs so specialized that they’re only offered at a few locations. The result is that a lot of Ottawa’s school-age population attends school out of range of what would be a reasonable walk on a January morning.

"...the incidental, day-to-day encounters that happen between neighbours en route to school, are just the kind of ties we need to re-establish, to face 21st century challenges together."

The school bus system does a valiant job of shuttling kids from one neighbourhood to the other to attend the appropriate program. Still, many parents and teachers will tell you that a bus ride does not provide the invigorating start to the day that a walk does. And buses contribute to traffic, albeit less than cars do. I once hosted soccer billets from the American School of Istanbul who spent four hours every school day, on the commute. So there may be a limit to how Byzantine we should allow our “bussing to specialist schools” to become.

"The anticipated development of 15 minute neighbourhoods in Ottawa is going to require some investment in the “hardware” of the city: street grids, transit, foot bridges..."

The other two issues usually evoked as to why kids don’t walk to school, are weather and traffic. Dressing for the weather is something kids have to do anyway in an Ottawa winter, as most of them get turfed outdoors at recess. Setting off in the morning on foot might reduce the chance of forgetting those outdoor recess clothes. As for driving to avoid the dangers posed by traffic, it quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I knew a mother of four who lived 500 metres from the front door of her kids’ school, but wouldn’t let them walk because of the traffic.



Those are some of the reasons that, with each passing year, fewer kids walk to school. But the walk to school could play a key role in building out the walkable community.

"A 15 minute neighbourhood economy is going to call for more generalists: the small business owner that wears many hats, the part-time worker that also cares for family members, the retired person who still pitches in according to community need."

The anticipated development of 15 minute neighbourhoods in Ottawa is going to require some investment in the “hardware” of the city: street grids, transit, foot bridges, to name a few. But we also need to invest in the “software” of a neighbourhood: that sense that an area within a kilometre or two radius, could and should be somewhat self-provisioning, self-reliant, caring, sharing, intertwined and interdependent, in a way that builds ties that we can count on under duress. A 15 minute neighbourhood economy is going to call for more generalists: the small business owner that wears many hats, the part-time worker that also cares for family members, the retired person who still pitches in according to community need.


Small neighbourhood schools that are accessible on foot to their catchment area, are just the places to raise these kinds of citizens. And the incidental, day-to-day encounters that happen between neighbours en route to school, are just the kind of ties we need to re-establish, to face 21st century challenges together.


However, small neighbourhood schools, both urban and rural, are constantly under scrutiny for “cost-saving” closures. Can we try instead to see them for what they could be: key assets at the centre of potential walkable communities? Half-empty buildings could transition to micro-libraries, adult education, newcomers’ centres, seniors’ drop-in, community greenhouses and much more. Let’s keep the neighbourhood school alive, and let’s do it on foot.


~ JANET MARK WALLACE is a regular blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa