This week, schools across the region will celebrate International Walk to School Day. It’s an annual event — this year on Oct. 5 — that’s intended to encourage families to consider commuting to school by foot.
Like Bike to Work Day, it’s a great idea with noble aspirations. Families that participate may find that walking fits their routine better than dealing with a frustrating car drop-off or racing to make the bus. Maybe school communities will use it to coordinate walking school buses, where adults chaperone groups of children from home to school, which can last through the school year.
Still, a one-day event cannot change what’s become an entrenched mode of commuting for most families. There are many obstacles to overcome before a parent might feel comfortable with the walking option. Quite a few of them were voiced when I previously wrote about the benefits of walking to school.
In D.C., Jennifer Hefferan’s goal is to help families and schools work around those obstacles. She’s the coordinator for the District Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program. The program, which dozens of schools in the District have relied upon, helps schools improve safety for students who walk and bike to school.
According to surveys, she said, the top concerns for parents when it comes to their kids walking to school are: long distances, traffic danger, adverse weather and fear of crime.
How can those be overcome? Hefferan had an answer for each:
“In terms of long distances, some Safe Routes to School programs have included opportunities that include families who live too far away for walking and bicycling. For example, students can get extra physical activity by having their parents drop them off some distance from the school and joining a walking school bus for the remaining distance...
Related to traffic danger, Safe Routes to School programs work to identify and address traffic safety issues. They also include strategies such as walking school buses, in which adults walk with the students and help them navigate difficult intersections.
Adverse weather is an interesting barrier. The truth is that the weather hasn’t changed that significantly from a generation ago when significantly more children used to walk and bicycle to school. Many kids actually have a blast walking to school in rain and snow if given the opportunity to do so. Safe Routes to School programs have been very successful in climates with all kinds of weather, even Alaska.
Fear of crime can also be addressed by Safe Routes to School programs. Walking school buses are a great strategy to address this barrier. Another strategy is to assign corner captains to oversee areas on school walking/bicycling routes. Some schools also work to educate students on what to look out for or work with local police departments to combat crime,” Hefferan wrote to me in an e-mail exchange.
There might be another obstacle for parents: Do I need this hassle in the morning? Don’t I have enough to deal with?
I asked Hefferan roughly the same question about DDOT. Why has DDOT added to its plate a push for walking to school?
“Walking and bicycling to school enhances the health of kids, improves air quality and the environment, cuts down on traffic congestion and fuel costs, and it is FUN! It’s amazing how something so simple can have so many benefits,” she wrote.
“Many children are not getting the exercise that they need. Washington, DC has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the nation and creating opportunities for walking and bicycling can help combat that. Physical activity is also associated with improved academic performance in children and adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control has found that schools with more walkers and bicyclists have measurably better air quality — and this improved air quality greatly benefits the health of children’s lungs, particularly children with asthma. Walking and bicycling are clean forms of transportation that don’t emit carbon dioxide. With rising fuel costs, walking and bicycling to school instead of driving can save parents money. The more students who walk or bicycle to school instead of being driven, the less traffic congestion around the school and the safer the streets are for everybody.”
How about your family? Is it realistic to walk to school? If so, do you? If not, what would make it a feasible option?