Getting to School Shouldn’t Be So Hard

Fewer kids are walking to school—with good reason not to. Schools are built farther from community centers, and traffic is heavier, making the streets less safe. Is there a way to change our built environment to revive the walk to school?

| February 2015

  • walk to school day
    Walk to School Day
    Photo courtesy of US Department of Transportation
  • maple ave middle school
    Biking is not encouraged in Saratoga Springs
    Photo courtesy Google Earth
  • Thurston Middle School, Laguna Beach
    Photo courtesy Google Earth
  • John Eaton Elementary
    John Eaton Elementary, Washington
    Photo by F. Kaid Benfield
  • People Habitat
    “People Habitat” by F. Kaid Benfield delves into various aspects of current American cities, finding weak points and setbacks, then gives hope and fresh ideas to remedy them.
    Photo courtesy People Habitat Communications, 2014

  • walk to school day
  • maple ave middle school
  • John Eaton Elementary
  • People Habitat

The way our cities and suburbs are structured hampers healthy lifestyles. In People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities (People Habitat Communications, 2014), F. Kaid Benfield outlines aspects of our current environment, infrastructure and culture that we can change to encourage healthier and greener living, while pointing out discrepancies to pay attention to, from the cathartic overuse of “green” to gloss over environmentally destructive products or places to foster walkability. The following excerpt is from Chapter 17, “Getting to School Shouldn’t Be So Hard.”

Getting to School Shouldn't Be So Hard

When I give talks about the issues in this book, I frequently ask my audience, “How many of you walked or rode a bike to school as a kid?” Hands go up all over the room. Just about everyone aged 40 or older. Then I ask, how many have kids who walk to school now? A few hands go up, generally well under ten percent of the room, even though half or more may have children.

As recently as 1973, some 60 percent of school-age children walked or biked to school. I’m told that, today, the portion is about 13 percent. All this while we have a serious problem with childhood obesity, which has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the National Centers for Disease Control. What’s wrong with this picture? Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York, is a relatively affluent small city popular with tourists and known for its historic architecture: the Saratoga Race Course, which has been hosting horse racing since 1863, and Saratoga Spring Water, which has been bottled in the community since 1872. There are mineral springs all over town. Its Performing Arts Center is the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet.

In other words, Saratoga Springs is the kind of old-fashioned place where one might hope to find kids walking or biking to school. Not so, it turns out. A 2009 story initially reported by Andrew J.Bernstein in The Saratogian attracted attention from urbanists allover the country when the Maple Avenue Middle School enforced a policy against riding a bike to school, even on national Bike to Work Day. The fact that the student was riding alongside his mom didn’t seem to matter, according to Bernstein’s article:

“Janette Kaddo Marino and her son, Adam, 12, wanted to participate in the commuting event, so the two set off to Maple Avenue Middle School on bicycles May 15. The two pedaled the 7 miles from their east side home, riding along a path that extends north from North Broadway straight onto school property.

“After they arrived, mother and son were approached first by school security and then school administrators, who informed Marino that students are not permitted to ride their bikes to school.”

2/11/2015 10:03:59 AM

The city I live in used to be walk every where able.Then some morons decided to move the high school out to the boonies.Now even the children who live less than a block from the elementary school are car riders. Last year for the giant deep south ice storm the kids at the 7-12 building in the boonies went with out lunch,finally got buses four hours after the school closed for the weather, and then got stuck longer on the buses trapped out on roads with deep slopes. Now the powers that be are starting to understand why there were a group of us who were trying to stop the build of that school.If they had been in the old school {that has now stood empty for 6 years} they could have just walked home.


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