Walking to school

Back in the day, my siblings and I almost always walked to school. We rarely saw it as a hassle; in fact, on a crisp fall morning it was often quite pleasant. We didn’t have far to walk. Street traffic and safety weren’t an issue. We were in good company with other kids who walked or rode their bikes to school on a regular basis.

I hadn’t thought about this for quite a few years until a news release from Kandiyohi County Public Health sent me tripping through the past. The public health agency wants to spread the word about International Walk to School Day, which is on Wednesday.

A little bit of background about the event, from the official website:

In 1997, the Partnership for a Walkable America sponsored the first national Walk Our Children to School Day in Chicago, modeled after the United Kingdom’s lead. Back then, it was simply a day to bring community leaders and children together to create awareness of the need for communities to be walkable.

By the year 2002, children, parents, teachers and community leaders in all 50 states joined nearly 3 million walkers around the world to celebrate the second annual International Walk to School Day. The reasons for walking grew just as quickly as the event itself.

Whether your concern is safer and improved streets, healthier habits, or cleaner air, Walk to School Day events are aimed at bringing forth permanent change to encourage a more walkable America – one community at a time.

Kids just don’t walk or bike to school anymore like they used to, like I remember doing when I was in grade school. And if someone asked me to come up with the main reason why, this would be it: Somewhere along the way, pedestrians seem to have slipped off the collective radar screen.

Community sprawl, increased traffic, busy intersections, impatient/distracted drivers, the disappearance of neighborhood sidewalks – all of these have contributed to making it often impractical or downright unsafe for walking. Although trails and sidewalks seem to be staging a comeback, many communities still fall far short of having a well-designed and well-integrated system for foot traffic. And judging from driver behavior, many motorists may have forgotten – or perhaps never learned – how to share the road with pedestrians.

At a deeper level, policy decisions also have played a role. As school districts consolidate or close buildings, it means many students, particularly in rural areas, often must travel much farther to school. When new schools are built these days, they’re seldom located in a central neighborhood; they’re built out on the fringes of town. To be sure, school districts are under great pressure to be cost-effective, and small neighborhood schools are expensive to operate. What’s unfortunate is how these realities have combined to bump the concept of walkability almost completely off the priority list. Then there are the social factors as well, such as time-crunched parents, after-school activities and worries about stranger danger. Add it all up and it’s no wonder most kids don’t walk or bike to school anymore.

The walk-to-school message probably won’t resonate with everyone. If a school, a community or even just a few households are inspired to do something, though, the Walk to School Day website offers a great list of resources for getting started. I especially liked this walkability checklist for the way it helps identify issues that can be a real barrier for pedestrians - traffic lights that might not allow a child enough time to cross a wide street, for instance, or parked cars that obscure oncoming traffic at a neighborhood intersection.

Addressing some of these things might take some creativity. In some cases it might require enlisting the support and involvement of public officials. A good dose of public awareness – awareness of the local street environment, pedestrians and our own driving habits – will likely be essential. Change isn’t going to happen overnight, but it has to happen somewhere. Perhaps introducing a new generation of kids to the experience of walking to school is one of the places to start.

Photo: Students in Pine City, Minn., participate in the 2009 Walk to School Day. Photo courtesy of Walk to School USA.

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