Tag Archives: Walking to School

She Wants to Ride the School Bus, but It’s Not Working

This cartoon popped up in my Twitter feed via @BrentTodarian. I haven't found the artist yet.
This cartoon Yehuda Moon cartoon (produced by Rick Smith & Brian Griggs) sums it up – but for parents making this decision every morning, it’s not quite so simple.

“It’s not the first two streets that are the problem; she can cross those. It’s that last street, because it doesn’t have a stop sign. And people drive SO fast through town.”

We stood in one small circle of conversation among many others, the room buzzing with questions about the first week of school. Flocks of small children swooped around our legs, swiping cups of lemonade before flying off to bring mayhem to some formerly-quiet corner of the church.

“It’s frustrating, because I really, really wanted her to ride the bus to school. It’s good for her to learn to take the bus and to have that independence, and to know that if she’s not out there on time she’ll miss it.”

I play with the edges of the paper coffee cup, folding the handle up and down as I listen. The coffee is thick and almost greasy somehow, leaving its mark on the sides of the cup.

“But I have other kids, too – honestly, if I have to wake them up anyway to walk her to the bus stop, it’s just easier to stick them in their car seats.”

Yes, the agony of organizing multiple children for school runs. Pulling the sleeping child out from under their blankets, draping that floppy, unwilling weight over your shoulder as you run out the door, returning to the house to pull a second droopy kid from bed. Tears falling from those bleary eyes, always, mama frazzled and late.

We talked through a couple of possibilities. There aren’t any other kids on her block going to the same bus stop, so a walking school bus (uh… to the school bus?) is out. The problem is that one street that’s hard to cross.

Almost all of the east-west streets around here stop at every intersection, but the north-south streets normally go eight blocks or so between stop signs. Of course, this means that traffic on these streets is much faster and that they’re more difficult and dangerous to cross. They’re designed so that people passing through by car can make good time – but they don’t add value to our neighborhoods.

I can think of three women just off the top of my head this morning who are driving their kids to school because there is a street too busy for their child to cross. I accompany my capable children every day for this same reason. The profound irony of this, of course, is that 20% or more of morning traffic is made up of parents doing just that. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

When we begin to talk about a Montessori City, we’re talking about a place where kids can practice age-appropriate behaviors without being unnaturally constrained by their environment. This is entirely do-able, but it’s going to require us to make some changes – and the sooner we allow our kids to live full lives right in their own neighborhoods, the better off our whole community will be down the road.

“It takes me seven minutes to walk her to the bus stop, longer if her little brother insists on walking. It takes me ten minutes to drive her to school. I think I’ll let her take the bus home, but I’m going to start driving her to school. This just isn’t working.

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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!

What’s Livability?

Crosswalk in Zeeland, outside Zeeland Christian School
Crosswalk in Zeeland, outside Zeeland Christian School (and seriously, what’s wrong with my camera?). Another blurry shot, but you get the idea.

“Livability means being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or Post Office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids at the park – all without having to get in your car.”

~Ray LaHood

The Car Line

We’ve received two “car line” notices from my daughter’s school in the last few weeks, both of which seem to be discouraging either walking to school or parking and walking to avoid the car line.  Here is an excerpt of what came home on Friday:

  • Please do not park in Baker’s Loft parking lot in the morning or afternoon… It is not safe to have your child cross the driveway where cars are exiting the morning car line.
  • Due to closure of Lincoln, there is increased traffic coming down Columbia which makes it difficult for cars to pull out.  When foot traffic is added, it only slows the process down and brings the car line to a halt.  With this in mind, please do not park in undesignated areas on Columbia or 22nd and walk your child over.
  • If you are able, we encourage you to use the car line, despite the few extra minutes it takes, for the safety of our students.  Thank you.

Emphases are mine. When I unpack this memo a little bit, I notice that there are appeals to safety the first and third bullet points. It’s hard to argue with safety, especially when we’re talking about our children. The logic is problematic here, though: Cars are dangerous to our kids, and we’d like to address this danger by introducing still more cars into the system. The second bullet point clarifies what  this may really be  all about – keep the car line moving!

There are many, many places where this wouldn’t be surprising, but this is a city school in a traditional neighborhood. It was built in the era of sidewalks and city blocks.  There are no cul-de-sacs to make walking impractical, no arterial roads to make walking dangerous, no deep set-backs to require kids to cross a treacherous parking lot.  What we do seem to have is a modern suburban mind which prioritizes people in cars over people on foot.

Whew.  This afternoon I both talked to my daughter’s teacher and stopped in the office for clarification.  Both sources told me rather emphatically that NO, this school does NOT discourage walking, at all!  I found the emphatic denial of any bias against walking reassuring – these memos had me dismayed beyond words – but as a new parent I’m still struggling to parse the mixed messages I hear coming from the school.

In our few weeks at this school, however, this is what I see: The car line is a well-oiled machine. Truly, it is impressive.  Pick-up for walkers, however, does not seem to be, consisting of what appears to be a smooshed group of parents reduced to milling around on the sidewalk in no particular order.

I think that the time is ripe for a Safe Routes to School program here.  I learned who my initial contact needs to be in my visit to the office this afternoon, and will follow up on this in coming weeks.  Without question, we want to keep our kids safe.  The real question is how.

 

(I apologize for the wacky formatting of this post, by the way.  The code that’s visible to me looks fine; no idea why it looks like a mess.)