This month, communities and school districts across the country will celebrate Walk to School Day. In the process, kids boost their physical activity levels, drivers see a respite from traffic congestion on local streets, and local leaders consider the need for street improvements to make walking and biking a safe option for more children.
Newspapers and media outlets all over the country have been picking up on the walking to school trend. Local coverage abounds with descriptions of excited kids, happy parents, and satisfied school administrators.
In Marshfield, Wisconsin, Rotary Club chairwoman Shirley Mook organized a Walk to School Day on Wednesday. “There was just a flood of young people walking and biking to school, all with smiles on their faces," recalled Shirley. "It was such a great sight to see.”
Kids walk and bike to school in Takoma Park, Maryland. Via Safe Routes Greater Washington
One father in Pendleton, South Carolina noted that kids were so excited that "there was more run to school" than walk to school. A mother of three elementary school children said walking to school gives her kids "a chance to get some exercise and wake up a bit."
Walking to school doesn't just make kids happy — it eases the morning commute for drivers. Parents dropping their kids off at school account for a full 25% of morning traffic. When students and their families walking or biking to school instead of driving, streets see less traffic. Less traffic means fewer costly repaving and maintenance projects, too.
In Newbury Park, South Carolina, school administrators noticed less car traffic in the parking lot and on nearby streets on Walk to School Day. Parents in Haddonfield, Philadelphia see Walk to School Day as a way to raise awareness about traffic congestion.
Walk to School Day in Haddonfield, Philadelphia. Via South Jersey Sun News
Getting to school on foot helps kids develop healthy lifestyles. In Nashville, Tennessee, Walk/Bike Nashville advocate Adams Carroll noted that "kids who are physically active more frequently tend to grow up to be healthier adults. It's all about getting those habits in early and making them a part of your daily life."
Walking to school "gets the kids' blood flowing before they get the day started," said an elementary school principal in Jacksonville, Florida.
As levels of walking and biking to school have fallen, childhood obesity has skyrocketed. In 1969, nearly 50% of all kids walked or rode bikes to school. Today, only 13% of children get to school on foot or by bike. Meanwhile, the percent of obese children rose 276% between 1966 and 2009.
Kids who walk or bike to school are more physically active and less likely to be obese than their peers who are driven or bused to school.
But unsafe roads often make biking and walking an untenable option for many families. Congress and state governments have invested heavily in roads to move cars efficiently, often neglecting the need for simple street features like sidewalks, crosswalks, and bikeways that make communities safer for walking and biking.
Simple and inexpensive improvements could make these roads safer for kids walking and biking to school. Via Complete Streets Coalition
Fortunately, more and more local leaders are prioritizing walking and biking projects to make streets safer for kids.
In Nashville, mayor Karl Dean said, "anything that makes walking and biking an easy and safe choice is important to me. That's why the city has invested heavily in sidewalks and bikeways."
Congress cut dedicated funding for the federal Safe Routes to School program in the new federal transportation law, MAP-21. However, local governments will now have more direct access to funds from a new, consolidated biking and walking program — called Transportation Alternatives.
Local governments and school districts can use Transportation Alternatives funding for street-level infrastructure improvements and school education programs to encourage kids to walk and bike to school.
These kids walking to school in Parkersburg, West Virginia would likely appreciate a wider sidewalk. Via Parkersburg News and Sentinel
In a recent Politico story, David Cary, a city planner in Lincoln, Nebraska cited the need for federal funding for biking and walking infrastructure. "You have to have parks and bike and pedestrian facilities that are well maintained. People do want them."
The new local control aspects of the law will give cities like Lincoln more direct access to biking and walking funds. "Now, we can basically control how a certain chunk of the funding will be distributed on a local level while still being able to apply for other funds for projects," said Cary.
As local elected officials and transportation planners improve street infrastructure for safer biking and walking, communities will continue to see healthier kids and less traffic.
But as blogger Christine Green pointed out on Greater Greater Washington, kids who walk and bike to school "do not know they are reducing congestion or receiving health benefits. They are just really happy to be outside with their friends on their way to school."
Could Safe Routes to School improvements make an impact in your community? Do your local schools hold a Walk to School day? Let us know in the comments.