More Kids Might Walk To School

By Kameel Stanley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

Loudoun County supervisors have raised the idea of requiring more students to walk to school, saying they want to bring up the topic with the School Board as part of an effort to hold down the county's rising fuel bills.

At a strategic planning session last week, the Board of Supervisors listed extending the walk-to-school zone as one of several goals for promoting energy efficiency in county government and among Loudoun residents and businesses.

"Everyone's thinking of how to save energy," said Supervisor Sarah R. "Sally" Kurtz (D-Catoctin). "I think it's a grand idea."

Loudoun school officials said recently that fuel prices had increased by almost $2 a gallon in 12 months, from $2.30 in May 2007 to $4.28, which had pushed their annual fuel budget toward $5 million.

Kurtz said there is the potential for many schools in Loudoun, especially those in the east, to have more student walkers. She cautioned, however, that the idea is only a suggestion and that any changes would have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.

"Walkable schools aren't going to work for every school," said Naomi Lithgow-Foidl, a staff aide to Kurtz.

School officials are constantly evaluating bus routes because of the district's growth and the number of roads being built, said Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard. Extending the walking zone is a complicated issue, he said.

"Right now, it's not as easy as it looks," Byard said. "What we base it on first is safety."

The district's policy is that elementary students who live more than four-fifths of a mile from their school are eligible to be bused. Those in sixth grade and above have bus service if they live more than a mile from school.

But Byard said there are exceptions. For instance, children are eligible for busing if they live within the walking zone but would have to cross a major road or a dangerous area to get to school.

Byard said the district has taken other measures to save on fuel. Instead of switching to biodiesel, officials have decided that buses will keep running on diesel, he said. Although biodiesel has environmental benefits, it is more expensive. He said officials also will strictly enforce a rule that buses cannot idle for more than three minutes.

Last month, the Montgomery County school board voted to give administrators emergency powers to extend the walking zone if they determine that such a step is fiscally necessary. The school system reported that its fuel costs could reach nearly $8 million this school year, compared with $3.6 million four years ago.

Besides the goal of saving money, many school districts across the nation have embraced having more students walk to school for environmental, social and health reasons.

Lithgow-Foidl, citing a U.S. Department of Transportation survey, said 51 percent of children who live within a mile of school get there by car; 31 percent walk. The survey found that 14 percent are bused to school, and the remainder use a bicycle.

Arlington County and Alexandria schools have received federal grant money for improvements to make their schools more walkable, Lithgow-Foidl said.

"There's just so many benefits to [students'] walking, if it's possible," she said.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company