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Walk-to-school programs get kids walking, biking, more fit

Walking or biking to school used to be a child's first step to independence – three decades ago two of three kids made the daily pilgrimage by foot or by wheel. Fast-forward to the 21st century and that number has dropped significantly as buses and high-mileage parents chauffer America's youth to school. What this means is less fit kids who become less fit adults.

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Walking to school can be really fun. Walk to school cause you’re not dumb. Walk to school and you will feel great. Walk to school and you’ll stay in shape!”
 — 5th grade participant in Walk to School Day 2002

Walking or biking to school used to be a child’s first step to independence – three decades ago two of three kids made the daily pilgrimage by foot or by wheel. Fast-forward to the 21st century and that number has dropped significantly as buses and high-mileage parents chauffer America’s youth to school. Sad but true that today a paltry one in 10 children use their own power to get to school regularly and only one in four who live within a mile of school are regular walkers, according to the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Experts say the shift is due to a combination of factors: schools are too far away, fear of abduction, neighborhood crime, too much traffic and lack of convenience. A result of less personal perambulation could be the dramatic rise in childhood obesity. Let’s repeat those shocking figures: The CDC calculates 13 percent of children aged 6 to 11 years and 14 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 years are overweight — numbers that have tripled in the last two decades.

To get kids walking and biking again, the Partnership for a Walkable America tried a pilot program that has seen success in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The result: Walk to School Day was launched in 1997 in two U.S. cities, including Chicago. It’s now grown into an international event. In October 2002, more than 3 million children and adults in 29 countries participated in the International Walk to School Day. In its wake, it has also fostered programs like Safe Routes to School and the Walking School Bus.

According to Christian Valiulis, project manager for Walk to School in Chapel Hill, N.C., the goals of Walk to School programs vary from community to community.

“Walk to School is done for a number of different missions within communities. People will walk for whatever issues or triggers in their community. A lot of people are walking for physical activity or to fight overweight within children. Some people walk for environmental quality, some people walk for safety reasons,” Valiulis told SNEWS. “The event is being seen as a promising first step for communities, especially by the public health world, as a good action step.”

For 2003, International Walk to School has been extended into a weeklong event, Oct. 6-10. Valiulis said that 95 percent of the U.S. schools that participated last year are planning to hold events again, and every country that participated last year will be onboard for 2003. Also, new countries have voiced an interest and he anticipates more than 3 million participants in October.

“The real beauty of Walk to School is, it’s very inexpensive to put on. It is a really happy feel-good event. When somebody asks how do I get started in creating a walk-friendly or bicycle-friendly community or school, it seems like a great first step is to start Walk to School. It really galvanizes the community around the issue,” Valiulis said.

“Walk to School is a little topic that branches into so many big issues. I think that’s the reason the event has taken off the way it has,” he added.

An offshoot of Walk to School Day is Safe Routes to School, a sustained walking program that uses education, engineering and enforcement to make common routes to school safer for kids to walk and bicycle. Using walkability checklists during Walk to School day events, community leaders, school administrators and parents realized their streets needed to be made safer for their children.

“A lot of Walk to School events that start as a simple idea to engage the community will evolve into a Safe Routes initiative. When it gets down to it, you have to have money to build sidewalks, to have crossing guards and to improve traffic calming measures. (Communities are) saying they need dedicated funds to improving the environment around schools so kids can walk or bicycle safely,” Valiulis said.

Safe Routes is in its infancy, with most programs just launched in 1999 and 2000. Without a national headquarters, each state has taken it upon itself to create its own Safe Routes programs and provide funding. Two programs that have had great success with state funding are Texas and California. Texas’ program had such an overwhelming response when it was passed last year that the state added more money to its coffers.

In California, Walk to School initiatives contributed to the passage of legislation designating a portion of transportation funds specifically for the creation of safe routes for walkers and bicyclists. Known as CA SR2S, it launched in 2000 after legislation passed in 1999 providing $20 million to $25 million per year until 2005.

For most programs, grant money is given to communities that have developed a plan or show an interest in making Safe Routes more than a one-project engineering fix. Money is used for sidewalk improvements, traffic calming and speed reduction, pedestrian/bicycle crossing improvements, on-street bike facilities, off-street bike/pedestrian facilities and traffic diversion improvements. In addition to grants, state programs supply materials and websites to schools, promote events and oversee the operation.

Many states, like Connecticut and California, have picked select school communities to perform pilot programs that they can learn from. California gave $25,000 to $35,000 grants to eight communities to create Safe Routes program.

“As part of our ACE program (“Active Community Environments”), we encourage state and local groups to use SR2S to create more walk- and bike-friendly places. We create educational fact sheets and presentations to identify the benefits of SR2S and the collaborative process it takes to create them. Our program conducted a demonstration project in eight communities over a two-year period, to learn what is the methodology and the potential impact of communities that mobilize with SR2S as their focus,” Tameka Primm, California’s Walk to School and Safe Routes project coordinator, told SNEWS.

Two of California’s most successful programs were in Marin (north of San Francisco) and San Diego counties. Using information gleaned from these pilot programs, it has given hundreds of schools and communities resources such as starter kits, posters and gift incentives to get kids involved.

“Marin County Bicycle Coalition has had the most experience with working a SR2S program in a comprehensive manner — via surveys of attitudes and behaviors, school curriculum, community events to raise awareness, and physical improvements,” Primm said

Despite some initial progress and success, Safe Routes still has much more work to do. Even with significant funding compared to most states, California is slow to get statistics and develop widespread programs across the entire state.

“I wouldn’t say that Safe Routes has yet happened, except in piecemeal fashion, so looking at it statewide, we predict there’s been no demonstrable impact yet, because engineering projects take years to put in place and it takes more years to analyze behavioral data,” Primm said.

“There is an evaluation in process of the Safe Routes grant program. At the end of that evaluation, some data from perhaps 12 sites will be available about how construction projects, mostly sidewalk projects, have actually impacted children’s school travel modes. Overall, we desperately need more data so we know how to intervene,” she added.

SNEWS View: It’s amazing that in the span of three decades, the percent of our kids nationwide actually walking or biking to school regularly has dropped from two of three to a mere one in 10! International Walk to School Week, though, offers the fitness industry a great way to launch into helping kids get more active – and we all know that a more fit child is shown to become a more fit adult. Contact your local school district or chamber of commerce and see what events are being held and how your company can get involved. Websites like have tons of resource materials and ideas to help communities get started. Plus, find out if your community has a Safe Routes program and see if your company can make a contribution to help them get off the ground and develop into a viable force that gets kids walking and biking safely to school again. Your company can make a difference.