By Michelle Volkmann
More U.S. children are getting to school the old school way – by walking.
Requiring only two volunteers and a neighborhood of children willing to dress for the weather, the “walking school bus” is part of a growing national trend to combat childhood obesity, traffic congestion and auto emission pollution in urban areas.
According to the “Trends in Walking and Bicycling to School” report released October 2013 by the National Center for Safe Routes to School, a greater percentage of children between the grades of kindergarten and eighth grade are choosing active school travel. Parent surveys showed the percentage of children walking to and from school increased from 12.4 percent in 2007 to 15.7 percent in 2012 in the morning and 15.8 percent in 2007 to 19.7 percent in 2012 in the afternoon. The data was compiled from parent surveys submitted by 8,119 schools representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“It documents we are stepping in a positive direction for active school travel programs,” said Seth LaJeunesse, project coordinator for the National Center for Safe Routes to School.
The National Center for Safe Routes to School is a product of the U.S. Federal Transportation Reauthorization Bill — The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act — that was approved in 2005. The federal program’s purpose is to “enable and encourage children, including those with disabilities, to walk and bicycle to school; to make walking and bicycling to school safe and more appealing; and to facilitate the planning, development and implementation of projects that will improve safety, and reduce traffic, fuel consumption, and air pollution in the vicinity of schools.” One of the outcomes has been the implementation of walking school buses at schools across the country.
The concept of a walking bus was first mentioned in Australian David Engwicht’s 1992 book “Reclaiming our Cities and Towns.” After being introduced, the concept was adopted in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. The first American walking bus was organized by two parents in Marin County, Calif., in 1999 and it showed positive results.
The best description of a walking school bus is a carpool without the car.
But while walking school bus enthusiasts say that walking to school is an “old school” method of transportation, these school-sponsored programs are a far cry from the independent child walking to school that was the norm in the 1950s.
Today, a committee of volunteers tests walking bus routes prior to the first day of school. Attendance is taken at each meeting point and students are registered to participate. The state of Virginia is in development with a consultant for a smartphone application to use for attendance in the near future. Students may earn prizes as incentives to walk to school. Volunteers attend training on pedestrian safety and go through a background check.
“From fall 2000 to spring 2002, there was a 64 percent increase in the number of children walking, a 114 percent increase in the number of students biking, a 91 percent increase in the number of students carpooling, and a 39 percent decrease in the number of children arriving by private car carrying only one student,” according to the article “Promoting Safe Walking and Biking to School: The Marin County Success Story” published in American Journal of Public Health in September 2003.
In 2007, only 1,833 schools were participating in the National Safe Routes to School program. By September 2013, 13,863 schools were actively involved.
But while the percentage of children walking to school increased; there also were a growing percentage of children who were dropped off by their parents. It increased from 51.4 percent (2007) to 54.7 percent (2012) in the morning and from 42 (2007) to 45.3 percent (2012) in the afternoon.
Students in medium-income schools and younger students, between kindergarten and second grade, are most likely to be driven to school. The Safe Routes to School study found that students whose parents had higher levels of education and who attended high-income city schools also were the most likely to ride in a car to school.
In contrast, students attending low-income schools were the most likely to walk to schools. The Safe Routes to School study found that walking increased from 21.8 percent to 27.6 percent in the morning and from 24.6 percent to 31.5 percent in the afternoon.
But is the decision to walk to school a movement toward healthier lifestyles or merely the result of reductions in school transportation budgets?
In the same time period examined (2007-2012), the Safe Routes of School study found bus riders decreased from 32.9 percent to 27 percent in the morning and from 38.4 percent to 31.9 percent in the afternoon.
According to a survey conducted by the American Association of School Administrators in 2012, the percentage of school districts that implemented bus transportation cuts grew from 10 percent in the 2008-2009 school years to 20 percent in 2010-2011 and 29.2 percent in 2011-2012. These funding reductions also might explain why a higher percentage of parents are driving their children to school.
Budget cuts are one more reason school administrators are embracing the Safe Routes to School program. Between 2007-2012, the percentage of parents who stated that their child’s school supported walking and bicycling from home and school increased from 24.9 percent to 33 percent, according to the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) study.
In the study, “Shifting Modes: A Comparative Analysis of SRTS Program Elements and Travel Mode Outcomes,” four components were identified as necessary for a successful SRTS program: an in-school leader to champion the program, activities that reinforced walking and bicycling, parent support of the program, and polices that support the program.
“The principal legitimizing it is a key component to success in the program,” LaJeunesse said.
Iowa’s Safe Routes to School Program Manager Kathy Ridnour agreed that an active school travel leader or champion is vital to a program’s sustainability.
“We have several completed infrastructure projects that have noninfrastructure funding to spend as well, but there is no one with the city or school who will take the funding and put even a small program in place,” Ridnour said in an email interview. “Everyone is too busy and the (federal) rules and regulations to spend the money are too time-consuming and cumbersome, I guess.”
Rural schools also are unrepresented in the school report, LaJeunesse said, noting that students living more than two miles from school did not see an increase in walking or bicycling to school from 2007-2012. The proportion walking to and from school remained steady at 0.6 percent in the morning and 1.7 percent in the afternoon, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School study.
Another hurdle is identifying pedestrian-friendly school routes. There need to be sidewalks and paths, as well as crosswalks where children can safely cross the street.
That’s where city officials can offer their support for walking school bus programs and gain the rewards of healthy children and lower auto emissions.
In the 2008 study, “Youth Travel to School: Community Design Relationships with Mode Choice, Vehicle Emissions, and Healthy Body Weight,” the consultant with Lawrence Frank and Company, Inc. reported to the United States Environmental Protection Agency that, “An increase in sidewalk coverage along the route to school from the median value (26.4 percent sidewalk coverage) to the 60th percentile (36.5 percent coverage) improves the final likelihood that a child will choose to walk to school by a factor of 18.44 percent. That same change also reduces school trip distance by 4.97 percent, carbon dioxide emissions by 5.49 percent, hydrocarbon emissions by 3.08 percent, and oxides of nitrogen by 3.97 percent, per student, per trip.”
Walking school buses also might lead to safer inner city neighborhoods.
In Chicago, city officials report that its Safe Passage program, which encourages children to use a highly organized walking school bus, led to a 20 percent decline in criminal incidents around participating schools, a 27 percent drop in incidents among students, and a 7 percent increase in attendance during the past two years in high schools that have the program.
But this type of lifestyle shift isn’t easy, said Amy Thompson, Heatherwood Elementary School SRTS Coordinator in Boulder, Colo.
“In three short years, Heatherwood Elementary was transformed from a typical, suburban, car-centric school to a role model and leader in making ‘alternative’ transportation not just the norm but enthusiastically embraced by our community,” Thompson said in a Safe Routes to School press release. “We have more than tripled the number of kids using human-powered transportation to school, and there are far fewer cars (and their subsequent pollution) arriving at our doorstep each day. Walking and cycling is now accepted as a fun, safe and healthy mode of transportation, and it extends beyond just the trips to and from school.
“My advice is to be patient with infrastructure improvements; they take a lot of time to implement,” Thompson added in the release. “Biking and walking to school is fun and community building. Once you get everyone’s enthusiasm level up, they can help you take the education and infrastructure improvements even further and give great feedback and ideas.”
For schools and parents who haven’t yet participated in a walking school bus, LaJeunesse offered this advice.
“I think it’s worth a try. If it’s not something your school normally does, start with a Walk to School event,” LaJeunesse said. “There has been a significant shift to walking. You are not alone. A lot of others are doing it too.”
Prior to becoming a freelance writer, Michelle Volkmann worked as a reporter for newspapers and magazines in Texas, Arizona, California and Japan. She has a journalism degree from Iowa State University. She currently lives in Monterey, Calif. You may contact her by emailing