Earlier this year we chatted with Montréal-based child-friendly city consultant Stephanie Watt on the school street initiative ‘La rue-école Sainte-Bernadette-de Soubirous’. Read on for our interview with her on the motivation behind the initiative as well as the challenges and benefits experienced.
On the conception of the school street initiative
Stephanie Watt: Politically, I had been championing play and school streets for a while. I spoke about them whenever I could. I believe it was in early 2020, the political mandate finally made its way over to the administrative side. And, as serendipity would have it, the Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal (CEUM), who is a partner of a pan-Canadian action-research project on children’s play and public health, offered its services to the borough. It could help the borough operationalize play and school streets. The borough decided then to give them a contract to lead a pilot school street with one school in the fall of 2021.
What were the defining features of the initiative -how many days, specific actions and changes were involved?
Stephanie Watt: The pilot ran for three Thursdays in October 2021. The street was closed to traffic before and after school in the morning for about 90 minutes and in the afternoon for about an hour. We used typical worksite physical barriers to close the street; CEUM staff were present at both ends of the street and in the middle to escort residents arriving or leaving by car. A borough traffic planner was also present to observe people’s behavior in their vehicles (did they drive differently, more safely?). The school principal and vice-principal were both active champions and allies, of course. Without the school’s participation, nothing would have happened. They were out and about those three Thursdays.
You mentioned during our call that the challenge of the project was that it was a long street with several residential addresses. So the question was how to respond to the needs of residents as well as students and families. What are your thoughts on this now reflecting on the initiative?
Stephanie Watt: The borough had promoted the school street with giant posters on the residential street in question. There must have been at least twenty posters just on that street. We hoped to reach everyone so no one would be caught off guard.
We also chose to run the pilot on a day with street sweeping, when many residents would have moved their cars already, thus reducing the number of parked cars on the street.
The school decided to take out play objects during the street closure. Seeing children play on the street scared some residents. They felt the street wasn’t safe and they were quite nervous about using their car in such a context. I think this is a valid concern, but it also shows the cognitive dissonance we have around cars and children. Our driving puts children at risk. But we act like the danger is inherent or separate from our adult behaviors and city planning. So given that, I would get a sense of how residents perceive the project and then introduce play once we have buy-in from residents and once we adults have figured out how to create a safe environment in which car-free behavior or play is possible.
“We wanted to study the behavior of parents” – you noted during our talk. Can you expand on this as we understand it is a very important aspect to rolling out a school street.
Stephanie Watt: With school streets, we were hoping that parents would adopt new behavior: walk or bike or roll to school and leave the car at home. The school in this pilot project is quite big and most of the children already come to school by active transportation as the school’s territory is walkable. It takes only a dozen or so parents trying to drop off their kids right in front of the school at the same time for chaos and danger to set in. So we are hoping to observe parents park a little further and walk their child the last 100 or 200 meters, or forgo the car altogether.
If parents don’t change their behavior and opt for safe choices, we are taking two steps forward and two steps back. If parents are driving through the alleyway near the school to drop off their kids, we are now creating an unsafe environment for the kids who use the alleyway to play or walk to school. We are simply moving the issue, not absorbing it. So we wanted to observe parents to see what behaviors we have to anticipate and work on in a more permanent phase. Children’s freedom is often dependent on how adults act. It could not be clearer in this case.
As discussed during our call, parents have a tendency to want to drop off children closest to the door of the school. What do you think this is due to, a mix of convenience and maybe also perceived safety (getting them into the school fast and not walking on their own)?
Stephanie Watt: I think it is due to several things. Yes, perceived safety. We often conceive of safety at the individual scale and not the environmental one. So if I drop off my child near the door of the school, my child is safe. But when 20 parents think that way, and park in double or simply drop off their kids in the circulation lane because the on-street parking capacity isn’t made for this rush-hour demand, then the environment becomes dangerous, or at the very least chaotic and unpredictable. So yes, dropping off your kids at the school’s door corresponds to one perception of safety at the individual scale. I really want to insist on this perception as quite partial, as it totally excludes other health and safety risks, such as air pollution.
This behavior of treating the street like a drive-thru is due to time. Parents often feel and are rushed. They must drop off their children at daycare and school and then go to work, perhaps far from school and daycare or in another direction altogether. And so what we have is a collective need, children’s mobility, being totally individualized or contained within the family unit. We don’t expect adults to take care of their adult family member’s mobility needs. I suppose we don’t see this as agism, but I would suggest we should. Children’s mobility should be a municipal and provincial concern, insofar as both are responsible for mobility and public transportation.
If we want to de-motorize children’s mobility and school environments, we need to remove the burden from the individual and parent scale. Of course, parents are important and children won’t be taking buses alone at 5 years old. But we need to come up with collective solutions to make walking and biking a sensible choice for rushed and working parents. For example, relying on parent volunteers to walk a handful of children to school (here in Montréal, we call this the trottibus, an initiative promoted by the Canadian Cancer Society) isn’t a sustainable model, but in essence, it is a good idea.
You noted during our talk that “We force a new behavior by closing the street”. Can you describe the behavior change that is forced?
Stephanie Watt: With school streets, parents can no longer park right in front of the school. For those who usually take their car, they have a new choice to make: they can take their car as usual and park a little further from the school and either accompany their child(ren) for those last dozen meters to the door or they let the child(ren) walk that last stretch alone or they can forego the car altogether. Age, maturity, and walking experience will play into this decision. But also just how everyone is feeling that day, too. Like does the child need to talk something out with her parent before arriving at school.
What types of resistance or arguments did parents exhibit to the closing of the street?
Stephanie Watt: That children could not walk in the snow and the cold, that they, the parents, didn’t have time for this, that it was easier for the parents to drive to the door, that it wasn’t safe to walk.
Were there complaints or resistance from people outside the school community (for example residents of the street or others)?
Stephanie Watt: Some residents were so pleased to enjoy this moment of calm and serenity on their street. As a city councilor, I had received several complaints from residents about the chaos of morning rush hour around the school. So those people were surely happy. Some residents were not super comfortable with children playing in the street. I didn’t receive any direct complaints about this, though. I suspect that if school parents used the alleyway to circumvent the school street, complaints would surely be made.
What were the types of positive reactions from parents who enjoyed the change?
Stephanie Watt: That the street was calm and safe, that they felt free.
One of the lesser addressed benefits of walking (as we discussed during our chat) are the mental health benefits. Do you want to share how this was addressed or experienced during the school street pilot as well as general reflections you have on this?
Stephanie Watt: In general, I’d say that walking or active transportation, in a safe and enjoyable environment, feels good. We stretch our bodies, we clear our minds, we prepare for what is coming ahead. If we’re a parent, we can be totally present for our child and enjoy those last minutes before our child(ren) go off to school.
When driving, we have to focus on the road and driving. So it’s a totally different experience. I’d say from the child’s perspective, they can get movement and play in before the day begins, especially those being driven to school. For everyone, arriving in a safe environment is a stress reducer. All this, I think contributes to mental health.
On the “structural addiction” of car dependence, you noted that a lot of the solution is structural. Any thoughts to expand on here?
Stephanie Watt: We will not de-motorize the city through individual choice alone. If it is easier and more convenient for a person, and many many people, to take the car, then they will. If nothing makes taking the car more difficult, it will remain a viable option. If nothing makes walking and bicycling and wheelchair rolling more efficient and enjoyable, then those modes won’t drive urban development and urban life.
We need structural solutions. For example, many schools in Montreal have walkable attendance areas. But parents still drive their child(ren) to school, and not just on rainy days. Why is that? Is it a public transit issue? A street design deficiency? Too few crossguards on the way to school? The absence of all-ages and all-abilities bike lanes? The overabundance of streets for motorized vehicles? The (social and cultural) perception that children cannot or should not walk?
In dense, urban areas, perhaps closing a street to through traffic is relatively easy, but in suburban areas where cars rule and connectivity at the pedestrian scale is truly rare, even super short trips will be made by car. We need to offer carrots, not just sticks. We need to plan school locations, school sizes, street design, neighborhood design for children’s active and eventually independent mobility.
Can you share more on your observation that “A neighborhood that’s not walkable is not pleasant.”
Stephanie Watt: I believe this more and more. Neighborhoods that aren’t walkable usually lack spatial connectivity, have wide streets, have high-speed limits, and sometimes have no sidewalks or bike paths at all. Driveways and curb cuts, basic intersections on the sidewalk, mark the landscape. The human body seems small, too small; the scale is for speeding vehicles, not bodies. If used as intended, this arrangement of space for cars and vehicles is inherently hostile to people not in their cars.
I haven’t even mentioned the noise and smell of cars and trucks! I live on a residential street, there are no businesses or even institutions. But it is 6-lane wide! Two lanes for parked cars, four for moving vehicles. And I cannot have a conversation outside with someone next to me. This is profoundly unpleasant. I am subsumed by cars and their sounds and smells.
Stephanie Watt is a child-friendly-city consultant. After earning a master’s degree in human geography from York University, she worked in an architecture museum and edited and indexed oral histories and essays about cities and urban life. As a city councilor in Montréal (2017–2021), Stephanie piloted several files in the Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie borough: namely, the child-friendly city, the feminist city, play, and parks and green spaces. Amongst her key accomplishments, we can cite the creation of Île aux volcans, Montréal’s first public space for children. Stephanie sits on the board of directors of International Play Association of Canada.