Kids Don’t Walk to School because Traffic Is Crazy

Last Thursday,we talked about how active transportation helps kids concentrate better in school, and how in spite of this most new schools are built in places where walking to school is made difficult. This week, we’re going to shift gears to discuss why kids who go to school in their own neighborhoods aren’t walking to school anymore.

Now, if you either have kids or know kids, consider pausing here for a second to find your own thoughts on this. Snag a sticky note or the back of a receipt, or just make a mental note.

This isn’t in my font package. Yet. Graphic designers – want to get cracking on this? I’m hoping to get a prize for “first use of the superellipsis in real life.”

Okay, got it? Because I think we already know where our trouble spots are, and it will be interesting to see if the things you came up with match what I’ve been finding.

Let’s look first at the real research, then see how well it corresponds to our own experience.  A study published in the Journal of School Health indicates several reasons:

According to their survey of 314 school and district leaders of elementary and middle schools, the two most commonly raised issues were concerns about the safety of crossing streets (54%) and the availability of sidewalks (54%).

Additional factors included distance to school (46%), traffic volume (42%), parental attitudes (27%), traffic speed (27%), neighborhood condition (24%), and student attitudes (10%).

In another study, a researcher from the University of Michigan found that safety concerns such as traffic speed, traffic volume, crime, and the weather were all significant factors. This study has a couple of interesting twists, though – kids are also more likely to walk to school if their routes are more green, and parents are more likely to let them walk when there is a barrier of trees between the sidewalk and auto lanes. So design makes a difference.

Now, let’s address the Big Ugly. I found it really interesting that neither of those studies mentioned “stranger danger,” which seems to be one of the first things that comes up in any Google search you may do on kids walking to school. I did a survey of some online forums – you know, the ones with the anonymous judgy mamas – when I was beginning this article and honestly thought that I’d be writing something completely different here. On these sites, the presence “weirdos lurking and kidnappers and child molesters” is the truly insurmountable obstacle for some of the commenters. This isn’t really surprising when we consider that media reports in general focus pretty heavily on a fear of strangers, and I think there are other social factors at play here, as well.

For me, this is one of those niggling little worries that surfaces only when one of my children decides that it’s a good idea to hide underneath a stack of chairs at church for more than half-an-hour, or when I’ve walked three times around the house without seeing even a flash of blonde hair behind a tree. Statistically, though, I know that I would have to leave them unattended in the front yard for roughly 750,000 years before abduction actually became a likely outcome, so I will myself not to worry about it. Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids addresses these concerns really thoroughly, if you’re interested.

Reality is, thankfully, so very much more encouraging than that.  I did a quick survey of  my Facebook friends on whether their kids walked to school or not, and their responses were just great.

Out of twelve responses, four had children who walked to school.  Barriers cited by both the walking and not-walking families included it being too far (3), poor infrastructure/traffic (5), and convenience (2).  But the comments! This was the best part for me; I found these really interesting.

I think fresh air and a brisk walk is always a good way to start the day.

Yes. Every day. It’s why we bought in the neighborhood we live in! From 3rd grade on.

Yes, we walk. After living so far away from school and having to get on the bus at 6:45 each morning, I decided that I when I have a family I want to live in a town where we could walk wherever we wanted.

That’s why we bought the house we did. However, in winter I give rides in the a.m. (too dark).

I’m including these quotes because I think they reflect our experience, but our voices don’t seem to be resonating. Many of us want our children to walk to school. The way that we’ve laid out our cities is part of why we can’t do that. There is so much more to say on this, but I am well out of time for today.

So, was it what you thought? When we talked at the beginning of this article about why kids don’t walk to school anymore, how accurate were your predictions? And do you encourage your kids to walk to school? Why or why not?

This is part two in an anticipated three-part series. Part One, on how getting to school in an active way helps kids concentrate, is here. Stop in next Thursday for part three!

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