Taking Strides With Safe, Healthy Routes to School

April 20, 2009

The Robert Wood Johnson foundation recently released the 2009 Safe Routes to School report, which concisely explains the movement for active routes to school: “In 1969, half of all students walked or bicycled to school.  In 2001, just 15 percent of children did.  The Safe Routes to School program is working to reverse this trend and get students physically active once again.”

Children’s opportunity to walk or bike to school touches very directly on HSC’s two key focus areas – school wellness and environmental health – raising questions about both physical activity and sustainability. We applaud the parents, school leaders and community advocates in neighborhoods around the U.S. who are working to improve children’s opportunities to walk or bike to school and in doing so are making a difference for kids’ health and for our environment. 

Today, in light of this focus and the report’s release, we have an article from a recent issue of HSC’s magazine, Healthy Schools.

By Kari Lydersen, contributing writer, Healthy Schools

Walk Some grandfathers might still talk about walking eight miles to school in the snow – uphill both ways. But most kids today do not walk to school, for reasons including long distances, bad weather, traffic, lack of sidewalks, fear of crime and a simple shift in culture and habit.

Over the past decade, however, thousands of schools have joined a national effort to encourage safe walking and biking to school. The 11th annual Walk to School Day will be held October 8, and the federally-funded National Center for Safe Routes to School is in its second year of awarding millions of grant dollars for infrastructure and educational initiatives nationwide to promote walking to school.

“We’ve gotten to the mindset where we just hop in a car at the slightest excuse,” said Lauren Marchetti, director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, based at the University of North Carolina and supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation. “But I do believe concerns about climate change and about the health effects of our sedentary lifestyles are converging to change this mindset.”

Legislation passed in 2005 created the Safe Routes program, earmarking at least $1 million in funding per state based on school enrollment.

The money can go to municipal public works departments to build crosswalks and sidewalks, install flashing lights, trim vegetation or other structural measures to promote walking; and to educational outreach programs. Oregon Department of  Transportation  Safe Routes coordinator Julie Yip noted the program is based on a “Five E’s” matrix: Education, Encouragement, Engineering, Enforcement, Evaluation.

“Just because you build something doesn’t mean kids will use it,” said Yip. “That’s where the education and encouragement come in.”

In Illinois, encouragement includes the chance for students to “Walk Across Illinois,” a program launched by Governor Pat Quinn during his time as Lt. Governor. Students log their daily walking mileage on a website, and they receive a certificate when they reach 167 miles, the distance from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan which Quinn walked in 2001 to promote health care availability. Last year, Chicago students logged more than 250,000 miles in 20 weeks in a pilot version of the program for schools.

Meanwhile “walking school buses” have become increasingly common around the country. This initiative involves parent or community volunteers escorting students to school, often dressed in yellow vests emblazoned with the words “Walking School Bus.” After a March shooting near Crane Technical Prep High School on Chicago’s west side, parent and grandparent “walking school buses” came out in force to help students feel safe walking to school from nearby housing developments.

“Every community has its issues, but we think they can be overcome,” said Shana Hazan, the Safe Routes to School director at the non-profit Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. “In places where there may be crime, walking school buses and parent patrols mean more eyes on the street.”

One mile for elementary school students and 1.5 miles for older students is generally considered a walkable distance. Students may cover longer distances by biking.

The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation also organizes bike trains led by parent cyclists, with designated spots along a route where students can join in. Many schools ban bikes on school grounds because of liability issues, but the federation is working with parents to change that. 

Statistics compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that distance is the main obstacle preventing more students from walking to school.

“With more schools built in fringe areas, and open enrollment, many children do not live anywhere near the school they are going to,” said Marchetti.

HSC is part of a coalition organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to encourage school siting with consideration of health and environmental factors, including walkability.

“Retaining older schools or building new schools within a neighborhood helps ensure a healthier community because students, parents, and local residents can walk or bike to the school. In turn, the school helps ensure the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood,” said Emily Wadhams, Vice President, Public Policy at The National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In cases where schools are not close to where students live, many Safe Routes programs encourage taking a bus or carpooling.

“We need to reduce congestion around schools, and the key is just getting kids out of parents’ vehicles,” said Yip. “Parents drive their kids because of the perception there are dangerous people out there, but what’s really dangerous is the traffic chaos.”