Conveniently coinciding with the annual Walk21 conference in New York City, October 7th has been designated as International Walk to School Day. A handful of American students will grab their backpacks, tie their laces, and set off for school by foot. But for most, hoofing it to school is a dying custom.
In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school. By 2001, only 13 percent did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey. During the same period, children being driven or driving themselves to school rose from 20 percent to 55 percent, according to data from The New York Times.
A variety of factors have contributed to these changes, i.e. hectic schedules, unsafe neighborhoods, school transportation budget cuts, fears of stranger danger. This New York Times article describes another obstacle parents face when considering whether to allow their children to walk to school: public opinion. Neighbors and teachers sometimes view this practice as tantamount to neglect. For many American families, walking to school is no longer socially acceptable.
This trend has major implications for childhood obesity, traffic congestion and air quality. What’s more, as members of the burgeoning Leave No Child Inside movement might argue, independent experiences like walking to school are crucial for building kids’ self-confidence, autonomy and initiative. And there are suburban sprawl consequences as well. If driving to school is the new norm, there is no need for families to live in complete, mixed-use (and arguably more sustainable) neighborhoods with local schools.
However, with rising gas prices, growing awareness of climate change, and concerns about childhood obesity, walking to school is experiencing a resurgence. The federally funded Safe Routes to School program has been working with communities to address problems that impede children from walking or biking to school. School districts have implemented solutions ranging from improvements to paths and crossings, incentive programs, and pedestrian and bicycling education efforts. An increasingly popular approach is the walking school bus, where parent volunteers walk groups of children to school. (Also: Learn about keeping streets safe for young pedestrians with the SafeKids Worldwide Network.)
This Walk to School Day, celebrate by walking to school with your son, daughter, sister, brother, niece, nephew, neighbor or grandchild. Or, share your comments with us. Should more kids be walking to school? Is this an effective strategy to address environmental and health concerns? Or has our society – and our built environment – changed too much for this to be a realistic solution?