‘An accident waiting to happen’
Congestion, safety concerns outside school pickup zones prompt calls for change
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Vehicular traffic concerns outside a Winnipeg middle school — in no way an outlier in a city with sprawling suburbs, inconsistent sidewalk infrastructure and frigid winters — is reigniting calls for more 30 km/h streets to promote safe and active transportation.
Throughout the last three months, Pat Burgess has reported the issues she witnesses daily after the final bell rings at 3:30 p.m. at Westdale School to anyone willing to listen.
The grandmother has contacted school leaders, trustees and City of Winnipeg officials — but she said no one is willing to intervene and rectify the situation she describes as “an accident waiting to happen.”
“I hold my breath every day when I see students running out between parked cars onto the roadway,” said Burgess, who has been picking up students from the Betsworth Avenue middle school for the last five years.
“I know this situation is not unique to Westdale, but there has to be a better solution for the safety of our students.”
A portion of the parking lot was historically designated for caregivers to use during pickup and drop-off. Citing local traffic being a safety hazard to students, school administration closed the concrete pad to the public at the start of the 2022-23 school year.
The shift has simply moved danger from the lot to surrounding streets with faster-moving cars and few sidewalks, Burgess said, noting the decision was made without consulting drivers and she has obtained recommendations from the city that promote on-site school pickup.
The grandmother noted her safety concerns have heightened after hearing a J.H. Bruns Collegiate student was taken to the hospital after being struck during morning rush-hour two weeks ago.
Westdale staff have urged families to drive part-way and have students walk the rest of the route to school, and try dropping off or picking students up outside of peak times, among their advice to reduce congestion.
Following dismissal Tuesday, middle schoolers climbed over snow banks and dodged a combination of parked, double-parked and moving motorists to locate their rides. Many of them failed to check both ways before running across the roadway, whose visibility was obscured by the exhaust of idling cars.
Several irritated drivers shook their heads as they squeezed between the lines of cars stopped on either side of Betsworth Avenue, despite the south-facing stretch being a no-park zone. One motorist honked at the backup of illegally-parked drivers.
Ian Walker of Safe Speeds Winnipeg said the major impediment to more students commuting on foot and via bicycle is parent fears about car-pedestrian collisions, which ironically prompts them to drive children to class and increase the total fleet on the street.
“We need to make driving harder. We’ve made driving so easy that everybody does it,” said the parent, teacher and chairman of the local advocacy organization.
While noting many neighbourhoods do not have sidewalks, Walker said installing traffic-calming measures and reducing speed limits to 30 km/h on all routes near schools is critical so drivers, pedestrians and cyclists can share the road.
“There’s no shared responsibility when cars are going 50 km/h. It just doesn’t work,” he said, adding school divisions and trustees should be advocating for changes to protect children and youth in their care.
The Pembina Trails School Division indicated it has worked with city officials to reduce speed zones on Betsworth Avenue, instituted stop-and-go areas with signage and ensured an adult monitors the flow of traffic during busy times of the day.
Superintendent Lisa Boles said “some close calls” in the school lot prompted Westdale administration to make a change to drop-off and pickup routines.
“The division takes all concerns about safety seriously and has engaged in an extensive review,” Boles said in a statement, which noted the division has used both internal and external resources to observe activity on surrounding streets and within the school parking lot.
City communications officer Ken Allen said municipal officials are aware of traffic concerns and “actively working with the school.”
The City of Winnipeg’s website warns vehicles parked illegally during school pickup and drop-off times cause traffic delays and create “serious safety hazards.” A single violation of parking rules can result in fines up to $300.
Much of the bigger-picture changes required to make school areas safer is out of K-12 leaders’ hands and rests upon city policy makers and their zoning and traffic decisions, said Mel Marginet, who sits on the Green Action Centre’s sustainable transportation team.
Marginet said the No. 1 priority should be slowing down residential streets to 30 km/h to encourage active transportation modes, discourage cut-through traffic and ensure severe outcomes are far less likely if someone is hit by a motorist.
“Kids being able to walk to school is really low-hanging fruit, in terms of healthy and happy cities — how kids can get their daily physical activity, (for example),” she added.
More pedestrians died after being struck by motorists last year than all of 2020 and 2021 combined.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Wednesday, February 1, 2023 10:15 AM CST: Corrects to middle school from elementary