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Tristan Cleveland is an urban planner who has also worked in Montreal, Guyana and Venezuela. Cleveland grew up in the south shore of Nova Scotia and has been an advocate for sustainable planning in Halifax since 2012.

Tristan Cleveland: New Halifax elementary school design sacrifices student safety for car convenience

Metro's columnist argues the proposed design for the new LeMarchant St Thomas Elementary School in Halifax would discourage kids from walking to school.

A rendering of the proposed design for the new school to replace LeMarchant St Thomas Elementary School, in South-End Halifax.

Halifax Regional School Board

A rendering of the proposed design for the new school to replace LeMarchant St Thomas Elementary School, in South-End Halifax.

The proposed design for the new LeMarchant St Thomas Elementary School, in South-End Halifax, sacrifices the safety of kids arriving on foot for the convenience of kids arriving by car.

That choice, if the Department of Education sticks with it, would be backwards. Inactivity is one of the biggest health problems facing kids, and so the province has sensibly committed to trying to encourage more students to walk to school. But if they can’t prioritize the safety of walking in the heart of the peninsula—one of the most walkable neighbourhoods in the province—how can we ever make progress?

The problem is a proposed drop-off loop. To let kids out, parents will have to drive over the sidewalk at the exact time of day children will be walking on it. That means dozens of rushed, distracted parents, trying to get to work, operating 4,000-pound vehicles, versus kids five to 12 years old.

Given that risk, many parents will decide it’s too dangerous to let their kids walk, and so they will drive them instead. That means, in turn, more cars trying to get through the same space quickly at that time, discouraging yet more kids from walking.

The proposed design violates numerous safety guidelines set by the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers, such as putting the loop too close to the school’s front doors, where kids are most likely to congregate. The Institute’s standards recommend a simple indent in the sidewalk, so parents can let kids get out without driving over it.

To use a drop-off loop would be especially bizarre considering similar designs are already causing problems at other nearby schools. C.P. Allen High recently barricaded an entrance to their parking lot so people would stop treating it like a drop-off loop. Clayton Park’s Park West posted a long message to parents about the trouble they’ve been having with their loop: “Some parent drivers still choose to ignore guidelines (including traffic signs and speed limits) which have been implemented to protect their children.”

Encouraging kids to walk to school is key to ensuring they lead an active lifestyle, one of the most important health goals of our time. According to a study by S. J. Olshansky, childhood inactivity and obesity are such big problems today that, as this generation grows up, the average lifespan in the western world could drop for the first time in a century.

Patrick Moan stands at the site where a drop-off loop is proposed for a new school to replace LeMarchant St Thomas Elementary School. (Zane Woodford/Metro)

Zane Woodford/Metro

Patrick Moan stands at the site where a drop-off loop is proposed for a new school to replace LeMarchant St Thomas Elementary School. (Zane Woodford/Metro)

And health aside, walking just makes kids smarter. Children who get exercise consistently score substantially better on tests.

Patrick Moan is a concerned parent who has collected 135 signatures from other local residents calling for the design to be changed. He tells me he’s concerned that the number of kids who walk to school has plummeted since the 1960’s—by one estimate, from 48 to 13 per cent—because of repeated decisions that, bit by bit, prioritize driving over the safety of walking.

To him, making the entrance to a school safe for kids should be a no-brainer. “If fixing this loop is controversial, then how can we ever have good urban design?”

To fix the problem, I’m told the best route would be for the Department of Education to ask Halifax—which owns the sidewalk—to do a safety impact study of the proposed design on walking. By demonstrating the risk, such a study could create the opportunity for a much-needed rethink of the design.

Instead of trying to solve traffic congestion with a drop-off loop that looks like it was designed for a highway Tim Hortons, it would be so much better to encourage more kids to walk. If that’s possible anywhere, it’s in the heart of the peninsula, a beautiful neighbourhood where it’s still so possible for kids to safely walk.

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