Walking to school is a step in the right direction

By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, October 14, 2010; GZ15

Growing up in an affluent New York suburb 40 years ago, I walked to school every day. In fact, in elementary school I made the five- or 10-minute trek home for lunch, then walked back for the afternoon.

Those seem like unremarkable statements, but they're not. Today only 12 percent of all children walk or bike to school, according to U.S. government studies, down from 48 percent when I was traipsing up and down the hill to Barnard Elementary in the late 1960s.

These days, we have to hold a nationwide street fair like Oct. 6's International Walk and Bike to School Day, with giveaways of helmets, water bottles and breakfast bars to get kids out of cars and onto bikes, scooters and their own two feet. Meanwhile, as you doubtlessly know by now, childhood obesity is epidemic and the rise of Type 2 diabetes in kids is staggering.

No study has yet proved cause and effect. But it's a pretty safe bet there's some connection.

It's easy to see how this happened, especially in the suburbs and exurbs of places like Washington. The "neighborhood school" is now much more likely to be too far away to make walking or riding feasible for most young children. Vehicular traffic is way up. The percentage of families with a parent available to usher kids to school in the morning and back in the afternoon is way down. And, true or not, the perception that our streets are much more dangerous than when we were young has taken hold and is not going away.

"It's inertia. People are used to [driving kids to school] and they accept it," says Tim Blumenthal, director of Peopleforbikes.org, a campaign that is working to unify 1 million Americans in support of better conditions for cyclists. In 2005, Congress allocated $612 million for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, which works to get more kids to school under their own power.

None of my three children has ever walked or biked to school in the 10 years we have lived in an affluent Montgomery County suburb. The high school and middle school are too far from my home. The elementary school is a bit of a hike, but it would mean crossing two heavily trafficked streets at the tail end of the morning rush hour. No way. My kids take the school bus or carpool.

In the early 1970s, before I could drive, I would hitchhike two or three miles to high school. Often, I'd be picked up by an older kid with a car, but sometimes an adult stranger would take pity and pull over. No one worried about it too much.

Today I would chop off my children's thumbs before I let them hitchhike down the block.

Poorer communities, with larger minority populations, tend to have higher obesity rates than middle-class neighborhoods. Many are in the city and closer-in suburbs, making the schools more "walkable." At Whittier Education Campus in Northwest Washington, for example, a study by Safe Routes to School shows that 83 percent of the children live within one mile, close enough to walk, bike, skateboard or scooter to school, but only 45 percent do, says Terri Rhoulac-Smith, a school liaison for the organization.

On a chilly morning on Oct. 6, as the sun intermittently pushed through a lid of gray clouds, the atmosphere on a small patch of grass in front of Whittier was festive. Balloons were tied to the fence. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was there, handing out some terrific bike and skateboard helmets free. Kaiser Permanente provided water bottles, breakfast bars and stickers. Kids and parents, almost all of them black or Latino, lined up for the giveaways.

The school tries to encourage walking and educate drivers about sharing the road with bikes. For example, it is trying to discourage three-point turns in the drop-off area.

But a closer look also shows that Whittier has only enough rack space for four bikes and no money in its very tight budget to buy more racks.

"I'm trying to get them in the habit of exercising. Don't just sit around," said David Fletcher, who walks his three boys 12 blocks home in the afternoons. Fletcher said he is unemployed and when his truck broke down, he began bringing the children to Whittier by city bus. In the afternoon, when there is more time, they walk.

Which, in a way, proves Blumenthal's point about inertia. It's going to take some serious reordering of our habits and priorities to produce widespread change. It need not be something as drastic as losing a job. Bikes Belong and other groups have devised some truly innovative programs.

To allay parental fears about safety, organized groups called walking, or riding, school buses accompany kids to school. An adult on foot or on a bike leads, a second adult follows at the back of the pack, and they pick up children as they make their way to school.

Another program, Boltage, uses a solar-powered ID-tracking machine, called the Zap, to count biking and walking trips to and from school. The Zap connects to the Internet and provides students and parents with daily reports on trips, calories burned and carbon dioxide saved.

It's not just our kids who will benefit if we can make cycling and walking part of the daily routine again, as you know if you've ever tried to squeeze by the line of cars jamming a street outside a suburban school.

"The sum total and type of benefits that will come when more kids bike and walk to school is amazing," says Blumenthal, who is also president of the Bikes Belong Foundation. "It's not just that kids will be healthier. . . . In many parts of the U.S., 20 percent of morning traffic is one parent driving one or two kids to school."

Separated bike paths and better marked crossings will be used by adults, too, he points out. "The things that make it safer to ride and walk to school apply all day, every day, for everybody in the community."

Follow @postmisfits on Twitter.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company