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Walk-to-school events, growing electric bus fleets encourage greener treks to school

Kathy Théberge sings the praises of a daily walk to school, heartily encouraging others to also make the everyday commute by foot. 

“It’s a great way to start your day. It just helps you get a little bit of energy and it helps you to be ready and focused when you get to school,” said the Pickering, Ont., parent of two. 

Théberge started the habit after finding it more straightforward to walk to her children’s elementary school, about a kilometre away, than to take the car, which meant parking and then walking “about half of the distance [from home] anyway,” she said. 

Her children, 15-year-old Matthieu and eight-year-old Abigail, also recognize the benefits of walking. 

“It is good for the environment because instead of driving to school, which produces carbon dioxide, you are walking to school, which improves your mind and body,” said Matthieu. 

Calls for students to bring litter-less lunches and reduce, reuse, recycle are familiar in classrooms across Canada. However, attention is now also turning to the way students travel to and from school and how to reduce the carbon footprint of that weekday trek.

That environmental concerns are important to kids today isn’t a surprise for retired teacher Théberge — she says it’s a topic students have been talking about at school for many years. “Sometimes they’re the ones that are educating and encouraging the parents to think about their futures.”

walk to school events growing electric bus fleets encourage greener treks to school
Schools and community groups across the country are planning a multitude of events during International Walk to School Month (IWALK) to promote biking, walking, wheeling or scooting to school, according to Brianna Salmon, executive director of Green Communities Canada. (Pierre Verriere/CBC)

Théberge has inspired others to follow in her family’s footsteps. She organizes activities for International Walk to School Month — which some have called “Walktober” — and encourages families to join in each Wednesday throughout the school year. Music, signs and stamps for the kids liven up the mid-week strolls.

“I have had parents come up to me and say, ‘I used to drive my child and it was just around the corner. Now we walk every single day because we can and it makes sense,'” Théberge said.

Sparking enthusiasm over this seemingly casual part of the school day is a great approach to help inspire new habits, according to Brianna Salmon, executive director of Green Communities Canada, a national non-profit association that supports local environmental initiatives across the country. 

A woman with short brown hair and wearing glasses smiles at the camera in an outdoor setting, with the background out of focus behind her.
Getting students excited about walking or wheeling to school can inspire them to continue throughout the year ‘and to help kids sort of see themselves as being champions for safer school zones and for positive climate action,’ says Salmon. (Hugh Whitaker)

“We really want to start to get families and students excited about walking and biking and scooting to school, as early as possible, so that those routines and that transportation behaviour continues throughout the school year … and to help kids sort of see themselves as being champions for safer school zones and for positive climate action,” Salmon said from Peterborough, Ont.

“We know that travel is a huge greenhouse gas source in Canada and also that how we move really impacts our physical and mental health, so we want to get kids excited … and to really support them in making healthy choices throughout their lives.” 

While walking or cycling were two of the most common ways kids got around in earlier generations, that’s not necessarily the case today, Salmon noted. In the past, for instance, parents likely taught kids to ride a bike and you’d learn about cycling safely when the whole family biked together.

“But that’s less and less the case for children now and so they’re not having that same transfer of knowledge,” she said. 

“Cycling and walking education is something that we need to be active about.”

E-buses a ‘low-carbon transportation solution’

School buses, another longstanding mode of transportation for students, are also getting a new look.

About 2.2 million children across Canada rely on approximately 51,670 school buses to get them to and from classes and related activities every school day, according to a February 2020 school bus safety report from Transport Canada.

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Electric school buses charge up at the Queens County Highway Depot on Prince Edward Island, which has been adding them to its fleet consistently for the past three years. (Brittany Spencer/CBC )

Amid growing interest in and availability of personal electric vehicles, school transportation officials across different regions are now more actively exploring electrification of those yellow school bus fleets, following an earlier wave that first introduced them about five years ago. 

Salmon sees Quebec’s “ambitious” pledges to electrify its bus fleet and the growing number of electric school buses transporting students on Prince Edward Island as positive steps toward change. 

“Fifty-one thousand school buses driving every day — and some of them very long routes, most of them using diesel — has a significant carbon impact and so transitioning to electric vehicles … is a really important, low-carbon transportation solution,” she said.

“It also sets a really nice example for children: they see solutions being implemented on their trip to school … As we’re faced with a global climate crisis, that can be a really empowering and positive thing to be participating in every day on your commute.”

WATCH | ‘I would never go back to diesel’: Take a trip with Al Kowalko, electric school bus driver: 

walk to school events growing electric bus fleets encourage greener treks to school 3

‘Overall, it’s just nicer,’ B.C. driver on the benefits of an electric school bus

6 hours ago

Duration 2:28

Sooke School District driver Al Kowalko offers a peek into what it’s like driving an electric school bus and why he wouldn’t want to go back to diesel.

More than 70 new electric school buses are also on the road in British Columbia. Since 2020, the province has provided more than $17 million to support school districts purchasing them, as well as investing in related facilities upgrades, such as electric vehicle charging stations.

The Sooke School District was one of the first school boards to access government funding to help subsidize the pilot purchase of two e-buses. After that initial success, the Vancouver Island school board has since added four more.

Cost continues to be a major challenge: each electric bus costs about $350,000 compared to approximately $150,000 per diesel-powered bus. Still, if government support continues, the goal is to buy electric going forward for its fleet of about 45 buses overall, said Ravi Parmar, Sooke district chair and a trustee currently up for re-election.

A bearded man wearing a grey suit and blue shirt stands outdoors in a bus parking lot, in front of several yellow electric school buses.
Ravi Parmar, current chair of the Sooke School District, says the board’s six electric school buses have been welcomed by students, drivers and the wider community. (David Malysheff)

“We as a school district know that we have a role to play to reduce our [greenhouse gas] emissions. We have a role to play to fight climate change and …  we’re [doing that in part] by purchasing electric school buses and electrifying not only our school bus fleet, but also our white transportation fleet — all of the maintenance vehicles — as well.”

For school districts facing difficult weather conditions or with bus routes covering very long distances, electric might not be the best fit for now, Parmar acknowledged.

“But technology is changing and I expect that they’ll be driving electric very soon as well.”

A man in shirtsleeves and a reflective vest gestures toward an outdoor electric vehicle charging station as another man in a grey suit listens to him.
Sooke district chair Ravi Parmar speaks to Randy Cobb, manager of transportation, next to a charging station for the board’s electric school buses. In addition to the cost of buying each bus, support is required for facilities upgrades like installing charging stations, Cobb says. (David Malysheff)

Forward momentum in electrifying Canada’s school bus fleet requires sustained and meaningful attention, collaboration and discussion between the many partners involved in school bus travel, noted Salmon. That group includes provincial ministries, school boards, school bus consortiums, school bus operators, bus vendors, transportation officials and student families. She believes leadership from provincial governments is also essential.

An overall re-examination of how kids get to school “really gives us pause to think about how we’re supporting walking and cycling and busing and safe travel for young children” and students, she said. 

“[These are] the folks that often aren’t front and centre in the conversations we’re having when we’re talking about commuters or highway expansions or other transportation conversations.”

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