Walking or Biking to School

Kids in America are walking to school in far fewer numbers than decades ago. One study finds that walking to school decreased by 50% between 1965 and 1990. According to another study by the Centers for Disease Control, in 1972, 87 percent of children who lived within a mile of school walked or biked daily; today, just 13 percent of children get to school under their own power.

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When I was a kid, we lived over a mile away from school, we had to cross a major street to get to school, and most kids had one non-working parent (usually a mom) who had a car and could easily drive us. Nonetheless, we walked every day.I believe that this huge dropoff in walking to school has many negative consequences for kids:

  1. increased dependence on adults
  2. fewer opportunities for spontaneous play (walking home often leads to kid-led play opportunities)
  3. lower levels of physical fitness
  4. reduced geographic knowledge (directions, roads)
  5. less neighborhood knowledge (people and places)

I believe this worrying trend is due to the following reasons:

  1. parents’ fear of child predators
  2. parents’ fear of pedestrian automobile accidents
  3. tight afterschool schedules due to organized activities
  4. increased popularity of non-neighborhood schools (magnet schools and private schools)

In an article entitled Is Driving Your Kids Around Safer than Letting Them Roam Outside On Their Own?, I present statistics that soundly refute the fear represented by 1) and 2) that driving kids to and from school is safer than letting them walk.

As for 3) and 4), I would argue that parents have come to discount the value of the time kids spend in their neighborhoods. Certainly, there are situations where it makes sense for a kid to be driven to an afterschool event or sent to a school across town, but parents should make these decisions cognizant of the cost to the child.

Fortunately, there is a national movement to increase walking to school called Safe Routes to School. This organization is an umbrella group for state organizations, and these state organizations get involved in local school districts to make practical changes so more kids can walk to school. For instance, sidewalks are being improved, children are receiving donated bright clothing, crossing guards are getting funding, and “Walking School Buses” led by a parent each day are being organized.

What do you think? Can we get as many kids walking to school as there were when we were kids? Should we?

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4 Responses to Walking or Biking to School

  1. Thank you for this post. I literally walked a mile in the snow to get to school for the four New York winters of high school! That was the distance between my house and the train station, where I caught the train to a private school in another town. I keep up the tradition by walking to work most days in not-so-snowy San Francisco.

    Walking or biking is a great way to center on the way to school and decompress at the end of the day.

  2. Suzanne Miller says:

    Safe Routes to School is a fantastic program. Our school system has partnered with Safe Routes for several elementary schools, and it has increased walking/biking dramatically, They really get the kids on board and the kids end up bugging their parents until they cave and either walk the kids to school or let the kids walk themselves.

    Heck, my kid even badgered me today b/c I insisted on driving her in since it was 17 degrees with the wind chill – she still wanted to walk!

    At our schools, kids who walk/bike get to fill out a raffle ticket and there are drawings periodically for prizes (usually weird stuff donated by parents – harmonicas, Happy Meal toys, etc). Safe Routes also sponsors biking/walking safety classes where they take the kids out on foot/bikes and teach them the rules of the road and Safe Routes help neighborhoods establish walking/ biking “buses” for routes that are a little dicey b/c of traffic, etc. The principals of our Safe Routes schools even lead the walk/bike buses on occasion.

    I don’t see abductions as a big problem for kids walking to school – particularly if they walk in groups. One big challenge for most communities is traffic. Not only has volume increased since we were kids, but driving behavior (double tasking while driving, aggressive driving, etc) have increased. Another challenge is that school systems seem to want bigger and bigger schools. In Atlanta it is not uncommon to have elementary schools with more than 2000 kids in them. At some of these schools they have actually banned walking/biking to school b/c there are just too many kids.

    BTW, there is no better way to get a wiggly boy (or girl) prepared to sit still and focus in school than to have him walk/run all the way there in the morning. We have a neighbor who was able to take her son off of ADD meds once she let him walk (he actually runs the whole mile) to school each morning. She even let him walk this morning in the subfreezing temps!

  3. Suzanne Miller says:

    OK, I see it coming —– yes, I am a wimp for not letting my kid walk to school this morning!! Go ahead… say it!

    We get spoiled down here in the Deep South – my Canadian mom would be horrified to see how wimpy I have become down here! 17 degrees is right balmy for her! 😉

  4. Michael Tarr says:

    Ben and I regularly commute the 1 mile to school by bike – since he turned 4 in November, it has been via a “trail-a-bike” (actually an REI Novara model which I think is better built) that attaches to my bike. He can peddle or not as he sees fit. He loves it. He campaigns to use it in all weather and has become a small celebrity because at pickup time all of the kids (it is N-12 school) see him getting picked up by bike, while they mostly get picked up by Escalade. His school is starting a new green initiative. The 4th graders were doing a cost comparison on biking vs. driving and invited me to speak to them (with my bike). They peppered me with questions for 45 minutes and were very enthusiastic. In the spring we are going to try to do more to get more bikes to school.

    -m

    PS funny story. Last Thursday, despite 25 deg weather, Ben insisted we ride to school. Some snow was forecast, but I thought we would beat it home in the afternoon. By 2pm there were 8″ on the ground! So no biking home (we walked). Bike is still stuck at school – the rain/sleet over the weekend iced up sidewalks and roads and made everything impassable until we get a good rain or two. Oh well. We had missed only 1 day biking til that point.