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Reducing Student Pedestrian Perils

by John Z Wetmore
This article originally appeared in the September 2001 issue of Public Risk, published by the Public Risk Management Association, Arlington, VA.
Copyright 2001 John Z Wetmore

Promoting and encouraging the development and use of safe walkways near schools helps improve fitness, fosters a sense of community spirit and reduces the risk of accidents and injuries.

The number of students walking to school in the United States has fallen from 70 percent a generation ago to barely 10 percent today. What are the implications of this enormous change? What caused it? What can be done to reverse it?

Often, those responsible for the road infrastructure and those responsible for getting students to school are in separate
agencies with separate budgets. Typical is the experience of Laurie Weber in suburban Columbus, Ohio. "The city has fought all along saying that this is a safe road for kids to cross. Our school district doesn't agree, and so we're forced to bus kids from this house on the corner across the street seven houses down to get them to a middle school. Obviously, when you are spending as much money as this district does on busing, it's taking money away from hiring teachers, getting textbooks, getting technology aid into the schools."

In areas where parents drive children, there may be less of a financial burden on the schools, but there are still substantial social costs. Bernadette Kowey, project coordinator of the Way To Go school program in Vancouver, British Columbia, describes the problem in her city: "The Greater Vancouver Regional District here in British Columbia has a real problem with air quality. They are responsible for air quality issues and road issues and things like infrastructure. They were very concerned when they found out that one in three children used to go to school by car in 1984, and in 1994 they found out quite to their shock and amazement that one in every two children was travelling to school by car. That means that one in every five cars on the road at peak hours is taking a child to or from school. That had a big impact on their concern about road use. But it was also a concern because they have policies that say we . . . are trying to reduce the amount of reliance people have on the automobile. And it looked as if the very youngest citizens in their community were in fact doing something quite different. That is, they were learning more and more to be traveling by car, and that was a real problem."

Long Run Cost

A far greater cost in the long run will be the morbidity and mortality associated with a sedentary life style. There has been a dramatic increase in childhood obesity in the past decade. There has also been an alarming increase in diabetes and other illnesses associated with obesity among children. Lack of physical activity is already the second largest contributor to mortality, behind smoking. As sedentary habits are carried forward into adulthood, the implications are grim.

Richard Killingsworth, with the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, is concerned. "Many parents do not allow their children to engage in spontaneous and routine physical activity. They keep them inside. That's why we are having a problem with [obesity] among our youth. One out of every five children are overweight, and less than 25 per cent of our youth population get enough physical education [and] physical activity in the school environment to promote a healthy lifestyle. We want to prevent injuries from occurring, with the safe environments for pedestrians, but also prevent chronic disease which will occur 30 to 40 years down the road if they are not physically active."

There are also substantial psychological costs. Children who are driven everywhere don't have an opportunity to interact with their environment. They may be slower to develop spatial awareness of their neighborhoods. They also miss out on the social interaction of walking home with friends. And they miss out on the opportunity to develop any sense of independence when every trip outside the house requires an appointment with mom the chauffeur.

Lisa Finnerty moved from a walkable neighborhood in Chicago to an automobile-oriented neighborhood in Montecito, Calif. What was the impact on her children? "It's a very difficult thing for them to be dependent on me to get places. In Chicago they had a sense of independence, they had a sense of their neighborhood. They had a sense of where they belonged. Here, they are in a car, they are watching out through the car window. All they can do is look at maps as we go places. They're the ones that have had the most difficult adjustment. In Chicago they were masters of their own schedule. They could go out, hang out in the sidewalk [and] have lots of incidental contact. Here there is none."

A family in suburban Ohio never has had the opportunity to experience a walkable community. Lynn England laments, "I realize that I've really missed an opportunity with my kids because they've been bused and because they've been driven everywhere. At this point they have no experience walking or crossing streets. They have no training getting out and moving around the community, and it's something I've really overlooked."

The problem is not unique to the United States. As John Seaton with Transport Western Australia puts it, "A lot of parents drive their children to school, which is not good for them from a physical point of view and a health point of view, but it's also not good because of the lack of social intercourse. They're in the tin box with mum and dad. They see mum and dad in the evenings. They should be walking to school with their friends, enjoying the atmosphere, the conviviality."

The Slide Downward

A number of factors have contributed to the decline in walking. At existing schools, increased traffic speed and volume may make parents more reluctant to have their children walk. The increase in multiple car ownership also makes driving an option for more families. This can create a vicious cycle where parents driving their children to school create such a vehicular hazard outside the school that other parents are afraid to let their own children walk. Kowey is concerned about "this combination of a huge number of cars in a small space, [and at the same time] throwing a lot of child pedestrians and child bicyclists out onto that street, even if those children are just pedestrians until they get into mom and dad's car. And that conflict between child pedestrians and vehicles is dangerous."

In some places, "stranger danger" is often a worry. In other areas, street crime is a problem. Arnt Husar, with the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, has been working with the organization's Walkers Win pedestrian safety initiative. "At one school, we saw that we're right on the edge of two gang areas. The first thing that parents felt that we needed to address is the gang issue. People do not feel comfortable walking out in that neighborhood unless this issue will be addressed by more police presence, by using traffic calming to slow traffic down to maybe prevent drive-by shootings. What we are focusing on now is to get the CAPS involved, which is the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy. It's a more community based police group, and by involving them we can get more officers out on foot patrol, [and] we can maybe get radios for the parent patrol, which is a group of parents that watches over kids when they go to school or exit school."

The transportation problem is worse for newer schools. The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League did a study of school location and walking to school. Sam Passmore, Director of the SCCCL Land Use Program, reports, "Schools that were built in earlier decades that are still being used as schools have higher percentages of students walking and cycling to school. At schools built prior to 1983, students are four times more likely to be walking or cycling to school. That's because they are on smaller sites, embedded in the communities, with strong pedestrian and cycling connections. Whereas the newer schools are on larger sites, further away from town, typically with four and five lane highways between the school and where people are actually living."

Reversing the Trend

There have been several different approaches to increase the rate of walking to school. However, they all work at identifying and removing obstacles to walking and encouraging walking. Much attention in recent years has been concentrated on Walk to School Day. It is now an international event, which will be held on October 2 this year in the Northern Hemisphere. This is one day when every parent and child who can, are encouraged to walk to school together.

Walk to School Day is an event that can bring public attention to walking to school. But it has many other facets as well. It can be a learning moment for pedestrian safety. It can incorporate lessons in health, geography, government, and much more. It can be used to identify and document obstacles that the children encounter, and create public interest in removing those obstacles.

Walk to School events can be organized in many different ways. In Nashville, Tenn., the physical education instructors
are in charge. Scott Brunett, athletic director for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, reports, "We emphasize not only the physical activity and the benefits of walking, but also the hazards and some safety issues that need to be brought into it -- as well as nutritional issues, about proper fluid intake and eating correctly before and after the event, and on a regular basis."

In Lakewood, Ohio, Wendy Lazor spearheaded Walk to School Day, which was held at all 10 area elementary schools. Her young son was killed last year by a careless driver backing into a driveway. "We were trying to give kids messages on being safe: walking safely, don't run in the street, look both ways, just basic safety for kids. But what we were really trying to target is the drivers. What we would encourage parents to do is to obey the safety rules of driving. On a residential street, go the speed limit. When you're in a school zone, go the 20 miles per hour. If a person is in a crosswalk, wait until they have crossed. If children are walking up the street, wait until they have completed their walk before you pull in or pull out of your driveway. Obey traffic signals. Make sure that when it's a red light you aren't going through it. [These are] basic safety things that could have prevented this accident."

One tool often used on Walk to School Day is the Walkability Checklist. Students and parents check off problems ranging from missing sidewalks to dangerous crossings to scary dogs and scary people. The checklists can be compiled and sent on to the appropriate agency to fix the problems.

Another type of program used on an ongoing basis is Safe Routes To School. Sustrans has been involved in Safe Routes to School projects in the United Kingdom since 1995. According to Celia Beeson, the Safe Routes to School Liaison Officer for Sustrans, "They are very much a partnership project. They need to draw in people from the local authority, from the school, parents and pupils, local residents, and very often local health promotion workers. What those people do is work together to see what measures are needed to improve walking to schools. So you have a mixture of things. You might need engineering measures, which would be new crossings [and] improving junctions. You might need some of what we call softer measures, which would be things like the walking bus, a wonderful idea where people walk together, and they get picked up at set points on the route. There's work done in the classroom that's linked to it. It's very relevant to what students are doing, for example, in geography [and] in environmental education. It links with the wonderful healthy schools scheme. A lot of people are working on the two projects together. So [it's] a huge number of different things which taken together, we hope, will increase the levels of walking to school substantially. The government aim now is to return the levels of walking to school back to where they were 10 years ago. That's quite ambitious, but we're very hopeful of success in that."

Bronx, N.Y., is expanding a Safe Routes to School Program. The program maps out the route each child takes to school, and then looks to correct any obstacles and hazards in the way. An alternative would be to correct hazards along every possible route to the school. Other programs are underway in several other states.

There are two important new developments in Safe Routes programs. First, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is funding two Safe Routes demonstration projects, in California and Massachusetts. The lessons learned will be applied elsewhere. The second is the passage of Safe Routes legislation in California. Now in its second year, this program sets aside highway safety money to be used by localities to eliminate safety problems around schools. Under this program, $20 million a year is available. Localities submitted grant applications for $100 million of eligible projects in the first year, so the demand is clearly out there.

Other obstacles to walking are slowly being addressed. The State of Maryland has relaxed the land requirements for schools. This should make it easier to have new schools within neighborhoods again, where they're within reasonable walking distance of homes. When schools are inside the community, the buildings and playgrounds are also more readily available for community use after hours.

As part of its Smart Growth program, Maryland is also putting more money towards rebuilding older schools, rather than just building new ones. These are typically schools within walkable neighborhoods, where students historically have walked. Many of these schools are architectural treasures highly valued by the community.

School children, like other pedestrians, have suffered under the automobile-oriented development patterns of the last half century. They will be among the first beneficiaries of efforts to make our neighborhoods more walkable. As a result, they will be healthier and happier.

-- John Z Wetmore

Copyright 2001John Z Wetmore

Graphics by the Graphics Station

Pedestrian sign from the
Manual of Traffic Signs,
by Richard C. Moeur

Updated October 21, 2001


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