The Real Reason Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

Response to StreetFilms: Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

The video above is certainly right that the car-orientation of our society is among the biggest drivers (no pun intended there) in kids’ changing commute patterns. I’m a bit of an urbanist, and I can say that I’m certainly not a fan of how so many communities in this world are being oriented towards the car, as opposed to kids and people.

However, to an extent I disagree with this video in the claim that children have “lost the freedom to roam” solely because of a car-oriented culture, and car-oriented communities. The comments in the video seem to imply that children have lost their freedom to roam simply because of that, or alternatively because their parents do not allow them to walk or bike.

Kids are not unlike adults: they are free actors in a free society (tips hat to Jarrett Walker), and they have the right to choose what seems best for them (with the assistance of parents). There may be reasons that children are actually choosing to be driven to school in the morning out of lack of choice, not because the society around them is car-oriented. There may also be reasons that parents are choosing schools further away from home for their children.

I happen to know that both are happening in my community. And, it’s not because of any specific development and land-use orientation towards the car.

The effects of school schedules and overcrowded school buildings

At the North Surrey Secondary school here in Surrey, too many students and an overcrowded school building have forced the school to adopt an awkward five-block schedule [CLICK HERE]. NSSS staggers students across the 5 blocks, so that older students study for the first four and younger ones for the last four (or combinations with study blocks). I’ve noted this before in my newsletters several times as one of the problems of lack of education funding in not just this city, but also this province (B.C. has the worst student-to-educator ratio in Canada 16.8:1, vs. a national 13.8:1 average – from the BCTF and Statistics Canada)

North Surrey Secondary's 5 block schedule
North Surrey Secondary’s 5 block schedule

I have one friend who goes to North Surrey Secondary, and lives just under 1 mile away, and is driven to school. In her case in particular, in the morning, she asks (and has arranged) to be driven to her school with her brother. But, in the afternoon, they have no problem making the 20 minute walk back to their home.

As with 11th and 12th grade students, as a result of the awkward 5-block schedule the school has been forced to adopt, her and her brother are expected to be at school and in class by 7:55AM – 45 minutes earlier than is expected at most other high schools in the city. That already means, in spite of being driven, waking up very early in the morning to go through preparation.

Transit options aren’t much better; the 335 bus route runs only every 20 minutes in the morning, meaning a missed bus means being late to class, and a trip that would take longer than simply walking. However, even if the buses ran frequently enough to be reliable, relying on transit would add an additional monthly cost of $104 ($52 per student) – not exactly an encouraging prospect for many parents who have cars for their own purposes, and who might not pay much to drive their kids to school in the morning (and possibly from in the afternoon) – especially if it happens on the way to work.

Some people have the luck of parents who will wake up earlier and cook in the morning to prepare food and other daily necessities. But, other students might be like how you see Umi-chan in the opening scenes of STUDIO GHIBLI’s From Up on Poppy Hill. These students, girls or guys, might have to cook for themselves, in addition to cleaning up and doing other errands in the morning to start the day. These errands can take a long time.

This reality seems to reflect itself in many online polls of students. In this poll on Discovery Girls [LINK] (you need to answer in order to see the results), 57% of respondants take 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning. This second poll on Smart Girls [LINK] has similar results: 30% of girls take at least an hour to get ready in the morning. 63% take 30 minutes or longer.

Image of the poll on smart girls. 63% of respondents require 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning.
Image of the poll on smart girls. 63% of respondents require 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning.
For the people who take over an hour, they may have to wake up as early as 6:20-6:30 in the morning in order to meet the 7:55AM schedule, considering the time of commute.

It’s been studied that adolescents naturally tend to be “night owls” – they prefer to be awake in the later night hours and awaken later in the day. This is because of hormones, and it happens with every teenager. Early wake-up schedules simply do not sit in well with teenagers.

This is why, in my belief, a lot of them will value those extra 20-30 minutes in the morning they can sleep in addition to being in the comfort of a car in the morning on the way to school – sheltered from rain, storm, wind, and other potential sources of discomfort.

The effects of student-educator ratio

Students from across Metro Vancouver protest overcrowded classrooms at a rally on March 2, 2012
Students from across Metro Vancouver protest overcrowded classrooms at a rally on March 2, 2012 [CLICK HERE to learn more about this]
The other issue in my community that I pointed out earlier is student-educator ratio. Here in British Columbia, we have the worst in the country. We are far above the national average. That is a factor that can make parents here very concerned about the education their students receive.

Why? Higher student-educator ratios have impacts on the education students receive. Lower student-educator ratios mean better education.

As I mentioned earlier, people are free actors in a free society. They are free to make the decisions they want in order to get the best. Parents are free to choose to send their children to a different school that may offer a lower student-educator ratio or an otherwise statistically better education, even if it’s further from home and, perhaps, driving to school is required. This, I believe, is one of the big contributors to why many students are being driven to school.

I know several students who have been moved to different high schools by their parents in order to obtain a better education. These actions do have results. One of those people I know, in particular, helped start the Can You Contain It! Campaign with Metro Vancouver. She’s a very active environmentalist and lifestyle change activist, with a very big record of community involvement through selfless acts of service.

A solution?

In my view, the solution to both of the problems is simply to ensure that children have a better education and a good learning environment – we must make sure that there are enough teachers for students so that they can get a better education closer to home, and big enough school buildings so that no schools have to adopt awkward schedules that force students to come very early.

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Encouraging active commutes to school

That still leaves the issue: What can we do about schools in car-oriented communities? I do believe that car-orientation plays some part in why students are driven to school, but I also believe that the solution isn’t difficult.

I believe that encouraging students to cycle (and parents to allow their kids to) is the solution to the problem, as is ensuring there is bike-friendly infrastructure (although in car-oriented communities, lower traffic volume on low-density residential streets can actually permit very safe cycling even without dedicated bike infrastructure like bike lanes). Cycling is something I took on for commuting in my final years of high school, and in my view it often provides a perfect balance between an active commute and a reasonable travel time to school in the morning.

How to encourage cycling? Not difficult. Urban and suburban areas should adopt programs like TransLink’s Travel Smart (a program by our metropolitan transit agency that encourages people to commute sustainably) and introduce them to schools. I know for one that Travel Smart has had much success in encouraging active commuting to schools in my city through incentives.

A group of kids cycling in Japan
A group of kids cycling in Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons – C.K. Tse