Vehicles stack up at a red light at the intersection near F.H. Collins on Lewes Boulevard in Whitehorse on Aug.t 14. Aug. 21 marks the first day back to school for most Whitehorse students. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Start of the Whitehorse school year signals traffic changes

School zones in effect starting Aug. 21

Time to rethink that daily commute.

Aug. 21 marks the first day of school for most Whitehorse students. School buses will be on the road; school zones in effect; and transit buses are likely to be jam-packed with students at peak periods.

Those without children in their care may be attempting to get out of their neighbourhoods before the school rush, while those with kids are altering schedules to ensure youngsters arrive at school in that magic 15-minute window when playground supervision is provided before the bell rings for the day.

Many students are hopping on a bus system for the first time – whether it’s a Kindergarten student taking the school bus or high school student navigating the city’s transit system.

It takes careful planning and knowing the schedules, speed limits and what to expect can go a long way to arriving on time and avoiding traffic.

Whitehorse drivers can expect most school buses on the road after 7 a.m. (with a couple ahead of that) until just after 8:30 a.m. and again when the school day ends after 3 p.m. A few will also be on the road throughout the day for field trips.

Currently registered on the 41-route system are 1,600 students with more anticipated by the beginning of the school year, Department of Education spokesperson Jason MacKey said in an email.

Route information and registration is available on the Yukon government’s website.

The 2018/2019 school year saw 2,225 – including 968 high school and 1,257 elementary students – registered on the system.

City transit users can expect an influx of high school students around 8:20 a.m. and again anywhere from 3:10 to 3:35 p.m. when classes end.

For more than five years, the territory’s Department of Education and City of Whitehorse have partnered to provide high school students with the option of a city bus pass. Those who choose the pass, opt out of the school bus system.

In 2018/2019, an average of 760 high school students chose the transit pass option each month and officials are anticipating similar figures for this school year, Mackey said.

The program began following a similar initiative that continues for Yukon College students.

Transit manager Cheri Malo said in an Aug. 5 interview there’s typically a noticeable ridership jump in August when the school year begins. That increases more in September as classes and activities are in full swing.

Typically around 7 a.m., transit drivers open bus doors to the first students of the day who might have a sports practice or other activities ahead of class.

By 8:20 a.m. “we’re packed” with students, Malo said.

The addition of a Whistle Bend route helped ease pressure on the system in the 2018/2019 school year.

“That has made a huge difference,” Malo said.

The morning transit situation repeats itself again in the afternoon when the school day ends.

An extra bus has been added in Riverdale during the peak morning period to address overflow in the neighbourhood that boasts two high schools with a third – the Francophone high school – now being built.

The transit department provides pamphlets and route information to each high school and bus drivers are happy to answer questions from passengers, Malo said.

In September, transit visits each high school over a lunch hour, allowing students to speak with drivers, see a bus, get acquainted with the system and learn how to register for a transit pass if they haven’t already.

Registration forms are available on the Yukon government website and, after Aug. 21, school offices.

“The independent living for kids is great,” Malo said.

She’s heard from some who have moved Outside and made an easy adjustment to other transit systems after learning how to navigate the Whitehorse system.

The transit pass program also provides a valuable service for students to get to extra curricular activities or part-time jobs and is a safe option for getting home with buses running until 10:20 p.m. (with the exception of Sundays when there is no bus service), she said.

There’s little doubt the presence of a school in any neighborhood impacts traffic.

For Whitehorse, that impact is most acute in Riverdale, a neighborhood accessible to most via one bridge in and out and which boasts a primary school and two elementary schools in addition to the high schools.

The new Lewes Boulevard bus drop-off area under construction in front of F.H. Collins Secondary and the site of the new high school on Aug. 14.(Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

A new Lewes Boulevard bus drop-off area under construction in front of F.H. Collins Secondary and the site of the new high school, is expected to be finished by Aug. 21, allowing traffic to pass school buses parked in the drop-off area.

The Selkirk parking lot next door will reopen but remain as a gravel surface after being closed for the summer to accommodate construction, Mackey said.

With specialty options like Catholic education and French Immersion, many students – unable to take advantage of those programs closer to home – come to Riverdale from other neighbourhoods for school.

That will likely increase with the opening of the new high school – being built to accommodate 250 students – in 2020.

All Riverdale schools start the day within the same five minutes.

The first bells ring at 8:30 a.m. for Grey Mountain Primary and Selkirk Elementary Schools and 8:35 a.m. at Christ the King Elementary School and the two high schools.

Questioned about more staggered start times for Riverdale schools to lessen the traffic impact, Mackey said such a change would be complex due to interconnected bus routes coordinated with school bell schedules.

A total of 13 buses carry hundreds of students to and from multiple schools in the neighbourhood. A bus picking up students up in Copper Ridge, for example, will take students to Selkirk and Christ the King Elementary, making it a challenge to stagger start times at those schools.

“By transporting large numbers of students at once, the school bus system already contributes to reduced traffic flow in and out of Riverdale,” Mackey said.

Any schedule changes would impact staff and require more engagement around students’ work schedules and extra curricular activities.

When the school year starts, 30 km/hr school zones will be in effect Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. with exceptions limited to Christmas, spring and summer breaks and the Easter long weekend. The zones remain in effect for other holidays, PD days, and other situations where individual schools are closed.

School zones are present in parts of Downtown, Riverdale, Porter Creek, Copper Ridge, Golden Horn and Hidden Valley.

Speeding in a school zone can net fines between $50 and $200 and anywhere from three to six demerit points, depending on how far over the 30 km/hr limit a driver speeds.

Those caught passing a school bus fully stopped with flashing lights or while students are getting on or off can be fined up to $500 and gain eight demerit points.

Licences can be suspended once a driver racks up 15 points, though graduated licences can be suspended after seven demerits.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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