Student Well-Being

Students No Longer Walking to School, Despite Millions Spent

By Bob Shaw, St. Paul Pioneer Press — October 11, 2011 4 min read
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It’s 9 a.m., and the rush is on.

Buses disgorge hundreds of students at one side of Bailey Elementary School in Woodbury, Minn. On the other side, parents line up in SUVs to drop off their children.

“Bye-bye,” says Silva Theis, kissing her 4th grade daughter.

In the hubbub, no one notices what’s missing—the dying practice of walking to school. Of 620 students at Bailey, not one walks—not even those who live one block away.

Managers of a 6-year-old federal program think they know why. Children don’t walk to schools like Bailey, they believe, because of the lack of sidewalks and safe street crossings.

But after spending $820 million to promote walking to school and reducing childhood obesity, there is no sign that the program has added any walkers.

Parents say the approach is wrong. They say their children don’t walk because of fear of crime, the weather, and laziness. Parents like to pamper their children by driving them. And many schools aren’t built in locations that encourage walking.

So, all the sidewalks in the world wouldn’t make any difference, said Barbara Smith of Woodbury.

On one recent morning, she dashed from her car to the Bailey door with her 1st grade daughter. Inside, she caught her breath,then explained why her daughter doesn’t walk.

“Dropping her off gives us special one-on-one time,” she said. “And solving obesity needs to start at home, not in five minutes before school.”

Congress Steps In

The history of the federal program is a cautionary tale about changing public behavior—even when the public agrees with the goals.

It was created by former U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., in 2000. Mr. Oberstar was appalled at the steep increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

At the same time, he learned that 75 percent of children’s trips away from home were in motor vehicles, up from 40 percent in the 1960s. “We have a generation of mobility-challenged children,” he said.

His solution? The Safe Routes to School program.

From 2005 through 2010, it received a total of $820 million in federal aid. Safe Routes gives grants for anything that encourages walking or biking to school—mostly sidewalks, safer street crossings, and education. The grants have gone to 11,000 schools in all 50 states.

In Minnesota, 16 projects received $4 million this year.

Safe Routes advocates point to one school in Eagan, Minn., where the number of walkers tripled in four years after it got a grant.

Principal Gary Anger of Red Pine Elementary School in Eagan used most of his $10,000 grant to create a map of the best walking routes to the school. That didn’t make any routes safer, but Mr. Anger said it was a catalyst for changing the culture to favor walking.

The school added a wellness committee, an annual fitness fair, and two remote drop-off areas to reduce congestion at the school doors.

The result is that of 950 children, about 150 now walk or ride their bikes to school.

But nationally, there is little evidence that the program is improving children’s health.

In 1969, 42 percent of children walked or biked to school, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a North Carolina-based network of organizations that promote Safe Routes to School projects.

By 2001, that number had plummeted to 13 percent. Eight years later, when the program was 4 years old, the number was unchanged.

“We take that to be good news,” said partnership director Deb Hubsmith, because the decline has been halted. Still, there is no sign that the money has increased the number of walkers.

Many schools are resistant to change because they are designed for drivers, not pedestrians.

Architect Paul Youngquist learned that lesson when he was planning the new East Ridge High School in Woodbury in 2007.

“I wanted to put the parking lots a bit away from the building,” Mr. Youngquist said.

But at a meeting, someone was aghast at the idea that the move would make students walk farther. “I said: ‘Good! A walk seems like an appropriate way to start the day,’ ” Mr. Youngquist recalled.

But the chorus of outrage swelled until he pushed the parking lots next to the building.

Today, East Ridge High looks like most suburban schools—akin to a shopping mall surrounded by acres of pedestrian-hostile open space. Not a single student walks to East Ridge.

Mr. Youngquist, who has helped plan about 300 schools in Minnesota, said walk-to-school efforts have to fight most parents’ deepest fear: kidnapping. Never mind that the rate of violent crime against children has dropped by half in 40 years, and that the odds of a child getting abducted by a stranger are extremely low.

Such fears are a reality of modern life, said Gary Dechaine, the transportation director for Minnesota’s South Washington County school system. He wonders if any federal program could change that.

Weather is another obstacle. If transportation habits are set up for the worst winter days, the temptation is to continue them year-round, Mr. Youngquist said.

Many parents also see the chauffeur service as a matter of good parenting.

At Bailey Elementary, Steve Golembiewski dropped off two grandsons who live a few blocks away. He cherishes the time with the boys. “It makes us feel better. We want to be involved,” Mr. Golembiewski said.

Changing Habits

Parents applaud the effort to slim down their children—at least in theory.

“More exercise in life is a great idea, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator,” said Ms. Theis, the Woodbury mother.

So would better walkways make her stop driving her daughter to Bailey Elementary every day?

Not a chance. Walking to school, Ms. Theis said, “would maybe work in California, where the weather is better.”

Mr. Oberstar acknowledges these objections. But he said his program is making steady progress in wearing down the nation’s unhealthy, anti-walking biases.

“We are changing habits of an entire generation,” said Mr. Oberstar. “It is going to take time—but it is happening.”

Copyright © 2011 St. Paul Pioneer Press, via Associated Press.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Despite Millions Spent on Safer School Routes, Few Students Walking

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