Metrics for Evaluating Walking School Bus Programs: A Case Study of Waterloo Region, Ontario
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Normative planning concerns direct sustainable development planning; however, many assertions are made without empirical backing and discount many of the values and characteristics of today’s populations. A potentially viable form of Active and Sustainable School Transportation (ASST) is the Walking School Bus (WSB) concept. The WSB can be defined as a group of students walking to school together under the supervision of one or more adults (or older students). Proponents often suggest the WSB as a means to address the barriers to ASST by taking into account the key values influencing school-based travel decisions. The purpose of this thesis is to address the question to what extent and in which circumstances are WSB programs successful in addressing the key barriers to ASST. Using a case study of four elementary schools of the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) in Southwestern Ontario, WSB routing is developed using Geographic Information Systems software. To address the research question, metrics are established that evaluate WSB routes based on safety, convenience, and cost. These metrics are used to compare the WSB results at all four schools to determine if neighbourhood walkability and student density influence the outcomes. Further, the policy context in which student transportation services are provided in Ontario is explored. The results of this study indicate that WSB programs can be successful in achieving a safe and convenient way for students to use ASST. Participation in WSB programs at four WRDSB schools would cut down exposure to unsupervised travel by 93%. This includes a 61% reduction in unsupervised intersection crossings. WSB programs are most convenient for parents as the results suggest an average of 16 minutes and 26 seconds per day may be saved by not accompanying their child to and from school. A student participating in a WSB program may experience only a minor inconvenience of 1 minute and 3 seconds on average extra per trip because of route detours. Finally, the cost of WSB programs, if led by paid adults, can be substantial. Approximately 11 Full-Time Equivalent positions would be required to operate WSB programs at all four case study schools using the parameters established for this study. Comparison of the WSB results at all four schools indicated only nominal variations between neighbourhoods with high and medium walkability ratings and between neighbourhoods with high and low student density. This shows that WSBs are feasible in varying neighbourhood types within the Region of Waterloo and has demonstrated that neighbourhood walkability and student density have no apparent effect on the achieving the primary objectives of a WSB program. Human decision-making and individual’s values influencing these decisions adds a substantial amount of complexity to the field of ASST. In a society that continues to be risk adverse, WSBs may become increasingly desirable despite the upfront cost. Therefore, this thesis does not draw any conclusions on whether or not WSB programs should be implemented, but rather provides the basis for evaluating the costs and benefits of WSB programs in a broader decision-making context.
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