Take Note

November 12, 2003 1 min read

Pedestrian Power

Sacramento, Calif., parent Belinda L. Morse wanted her two children to be able to walk to the nearby 1,100-student Natomas Park Elementary School.

But walking through heavy traffic in urban and suburban neighborhoods raises safety concerns, so Ms. Morse started a program widely used in the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere overseas. It’s called the Walking School Bus.

Only 13 percent of U.S. children’s trips to school are made on foot or bicycle today, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. The remainder rely on cars or buses to carry them from home to schoolhouse and back again.

For parents who want to revive the tradition of hoofing it to the neighborhood school, the Walking School Bus offers a safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly option, its supporters say.

The formal version of the Walking School Bus has an adult “driver” at the front of a pack of children and an adult “conductor” bringing up the rear. The group walks along a set route, picking up additional “passengers” at stops along the way. Schools often play a central role in organizing and training the adult volunteers and ensuring the safety of the programs.

The concept has caught on more slowly in the United States; besides Sacramento, the few examples of communities even testing the idea include Chicago; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Indiana, Pa. And most U.S. programs are more casual than their European counterparts, relying on grassroots efforts to initiate and coordinate them, said Christian Valiulis, the associate director of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, an arm of the Highway Safety Research Center, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“They’re more like carpools in this country, where groups of parents get together informally and decide to take turns walking their kids to school,” he said.

The five “walking buses” Ms. Morse has organized in Sacramento are closely modeled after programs abroad.

Her “drivers” must undergo background checks and tuberculosis testing and complete training in pedestrian safety and first aid. Wearing bright orange vests and carrying stop signs, each one escorts five to 10 children to and from school.

“A lot of what we built into this was based on parents’ concerns,” Ms. Morse said. “We want them to feel like their kids are safe.”

— Harris Bowman