October is International Walk to School month, which encourages kids to walk to school rather than relying on being driven. In that regard, it’s really an effort to educate parents as much as students.
The benefits are clear. We all know we need to increase daily physical activity, improve the safety of our communities, reduce traffic congestion around schools, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create communities where people choose to walk. Knowing is one thing. Putting it into action is another.
Debates are ongoing about the advisability of parents driving their children to school.
Increasingly, students who aren’t bussed travel to and from school in their parents’ cars, rather than walking or bicycling. While previous generations may not have walked to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways, kids did get there under their own steam much more frequently than is the case today.
Concerned about obesity and falling fitness levels, authorities have been encouraging kids to wake, bike or blade to school. In Waterloo Region, the public health department promotes the practice, and planners pay more attention to safe school routes.
From an environmental perspective, every car trip avoided results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And keeping the car away from schools is also much safer: show school zones have become one of the most dangerous places in our communities. Families that would like to walk opt to take the car because they don’t want to become another pedestrian statistic.
We’ve become so dependent on driving to school that the school run accounts for 25 to 30 per cent of morning rush hour trips.
The Ontario Walkability Study, prepared at the York University Centre for Applied Sustainability, attempted to quantify the extent of the problems caused by travelling to school by car instead of on foot.
• Fewer than half of Canadian children now walk to school, and the figure drops to 10 per cent in the United States;
• 26.8 per cent of Ontario students surveyed said they would like to ride their bicycle to school, but only 3.5 per cent do;
• Two out of three Canadian children do not meet average physical activity guidelines to achieve optimum growth and development;
• More than 25 per cent of Canadian children and youth are overweight.
In explaining their decision to drive kids to and from school, parents typically cite concerns about abduction and traffic safety, the latter ironically heightened by the increased number of cars around schools as parents act as shuttle services.
U.S. statistics show parents are right to fear their children could be struck by a car – being killed by a car on while on foot is the second leading cause of unintentional death in children under the age of 14. The top cause? Being killed while travelling as a passenger in a car. About 50 per cent of children hit by cars near schools are hit by parents of other students, according to U.S. figures.
As for strangers scooping kids off the streets, the chance a U.S. school child is 13 times more likely to die playing football than to be the victim of abduction.
Still, there’s a huge psychological barrier to overcome. The media are partly to blame, with reporting on every incident and scare on the continent and leaving the public with the idea things are getting worse. As with other crime statistics, perceptions run contrary to the numbers.
Individual decisions to walk to school provide individual benefits. With enough people taking part, the collective change could make a real difference.