This story was originally published in October 2014.
Fifth-grader Dominic Feder Di Toro bounds to the curb on Connecticut Avenue on a busy Monday morning, his backpack bouncing to the rhythm of his pounding feet. He glimpses the bright white walk sign beckoning from the other side of the six-lane road. He looks back at his friends. “We got it,” he tells them in an authoritative tone.
The fifth-graders bunch up, step into the crosswalk and hustle across the street. The volume of their chatter rises above the rumble of a trash truck turning the corner, a convoy of impatient tour buses caught at the red light and the distant siren of an emergency vehicle.
Dominic — or Nic, as his friends call him — and the gaggle of friends he’s walking with attend Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Northwest Washington. Together on a “walking school bus,” these kids trek through an urban jungle every day to get to school.
“I love walking with my friends to school,” Lizey Leibovich says. “This way, we have half an hour to hang out before school. And when you get to school, you can say, ‘I just walked a mile.’ You just feel good.”
The miles add up, even though these kids have so much fun they hardly notice that they’re walking more than five miles a week or nearly 200 miles in a school year.
The walking school bus is an idea that’s gaining traction in the Washington area as a way to encourage kids to walk to school.
So what is a walking school bus, exactly?
“It’s like a carpool, except we walk,” says 10-year-old CJ Stanton, who “rides” with Nic and Lizey. “There are different little stops, and the group just keeps getting bigger and bigger with more and more kids the closer we get to school.”
At one stop, their friend Zara Escobar runs out from her apartment building. Some mornings, she grabs mints from the building’s front desk to share with her friends.
A walking school bus such as theirs involves students walking a planned route with a parent “driver” every day or even just once a month. Other versions meet at designated spots from which “riders” walk to school together. In Vienna, Virginia, students at Vienna Elementary participate in “Walking Wednesdays” and “Biking Fridays” each week.
“Even on rainy days, the walking school bus is fun,” says Jennifer Hefferan, who works for the D.C. Department of Transportation. Part of her job is to help schools create safe routes for kids to get to school. “Splashing in puddles is fun, and walking is fun. Our feet have power.”
Walking school buses (or “walk pool” as Nic, Lizey, CJ and Zara’s group calls it) help parents save time because they take turns supervising the walk. It also saves energy and cuts down on neighborhood traffic. Having fewer cars on the road means better air quality and less gasoline used. It also provides kids an opportunity for exercise and fun.
But there are rules, such as being on time, staying on the sidewalk and crossing only on green lights and within the crosswalks. Nic says another rule is that “your feet should move way faster than your lips.”
“But that doesn’t usually happen,” Ruthie Williams points out.
“Because Nic’s usually singing,” adds Ruthie’s twin sister, Georgie.
On Wednesday, schools around the world will celebrate the fun of walking with friends and the power of pedestrians (and their feet) on International Walk to School Day.
Capitol Hill students will meet in Lincoln Park that day for a rally before school. Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School holds an annual “Walk and Roll” event in which kids walk to school from a drop-off point, hiking up the steep hill that leads to the school with cheerleaders cheering along the way. Parents driving to school that day have to pay a $1 car “tax.”
Lafayette Elementary in Washington’s Chevy Chase neighborhood organizes multiple walking school buses and awards prizes for all participants.
In Takoma Park, Maryland, on Walk to School Day, student walkers at Rolling Terrace Elementary will carry banners and honor student safety patrols. The school will host an outdoor assembly, with police officers and community leaders talking about the importance of walking or biking and why it’s good for everyone.
“Part of Walk to School Day is about safety and encouraging parents and students to choose walking and biking over driving,” says Lucy Neher, who works as the Safe Routes to School coordinator for the city of Takoma Park. It’s also teaching pedestrian safety to walkers and teaching drivers to be more careful around pedestrians. “It wakes up kids’ minds and their senses,” she says.
It also builds what she calls “street smarts” and helps kids maintain a connection to the outdoors. Neher recalls a boy who said he felt famous on Walk to School Day.
“He thought it was a parade,” Neher says. “You might not feel famous walking to school every day, but you will feel good about yourself.”
“There’s nothing about walk pool that’s not good,” says Lizey Leibovich’s mom, Meri Kolbrener, who started the “bus” that travels 1.3 miles each morning from Woodley Park to the Adams campus of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School. The “bus” runs every day unless it’s colder than 25 degrees outside or it’s pouring rain.
Kolbrener says the effort invested in setting up what she calls “walk pool” saves parents hundreds of hours throughout the school year. “It’s one of those ‘it takes a village’ moments where the parents are taking care of each others’ kids one morning a week,” she says.
Here’s Kolbrener’s advice for how families can start their own walking school bus:
• Create a route that participants agree on.
• Insist that the kids take responsibility for getting to the bus on time. If a kid is late, he or she will have to catch up.
• Keep the bus schedule strict, but allow changes if necessary.
• Use technology: Collect every parent’s cellphone number so you can communicate easily.
(Safe Routes to School also has a walking school bus guide at bit.ly/1jWm0lU.)
To learn more about International Walk to School Day and see pictures of kids taking part in walk-to-school events, check out www.walkbiketoschool.org. Always ask a parent before going online.