The “Duh!” Way to Get Kids Walking to School

Maybe the answer to, “How can we get kids back to walking to school?” is, “Um…suggest it?”

That’s what St. Raphael Catholic School in Toronto did. The student-run Heath Action Team pushed for kids at the K-8 school to start walking. They held a why-it’s-good-to-walk assembly, they organized official walk-to-school days on the last Friday of every month, and they partnered with Safe Routes to Schools, which did a study of the reasons parents don’t let their kids walk. And? Here’s what Metronews.ca reporter May Warren found:

A blast of cold winter weather didn’t stop St. Raphael Catholic School student Ryan Walsh from getting to his classroom by foot Monday morning.

The 12-year-old walks “to and from school every day rain or shine” as a student leader of a program aimed at getting other kids to get to do the same.

And, he’s seeing results.

Since the program started in September, the number of students walking to or from school has already increased by nine per cent — up from 24 per cent in May 2016 to 33 per cent in October, according to a recent school survey.

“When we tabulated the numbers it was incredible,” teacher Cristian Fazzini said of the initiative, which he said could act as a model for other schools.

But the phys-ed teacher was not exactly shocked. Even before the numbers were counted, he’d noticed a dip in the number of cars around the school and kids taking the bus.

Compare that to this Streetsblog video of morning drop-off at a school in North Carolina. Granted there, as in Toronto, the Number 1 reason parents drive is that the school is too far away:

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But it seems obvious that if a school makes walking a priority and the students talk it up, if nothing else the parents could start dropping their kids off a few blocks away. (Unless they really like spending 20 minutes a day inching forward.)

Bottom line: Schools can encourage kids to encourage other kids to walk to school. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

*And it works

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Drop-off at an American school. It’s only 20 minutes a day! (Well, times two…)

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33 Responses to The “Duh!” Way to Get Kids Walking to School

  1. WendyW December 22, 2016 at 12:13 pm #

    I must say they’ve got their drop-off system down pat! When a school has that large a percentage of families that live “too far” for the kids to walk, they need to reconsider their attendance boundaries, busing boundaries, and placement of the schools. Districts like big schools for a variety of reasons, but kids benefit from small neighborhood schools withing walking distance, which also puts most of their friends within walking distance.

  2. Christine Wynne December 22, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    looks like the school district must not pay for school buses. Never seen anything so ridiculous! I lived in a upper middle school and everyone walked if school was less than a mile away. Parents with many children families had no time to drive kids to school. Lots of stay at home with one child families?

  3. Ann in L.A. December 22, 2016 at 12:22 pm #

    “Too far” even for bikes? The range of a kid on a bike is several miles further than for a kid walking.

    I’m glad our kid is now in a school a couple of minutes walk from a metro rail station, and that he now knows how to take the buses home in the afternoon. He’s a freshman, and a couple of the high school kids are on his train. But not many of the younger kids at the K-12 school are (our kid has seen one younger, but he rides with his older brother.)

    On the other hand, there is a public middle school on the line, and we see those kids frequently. From what I’ve seen, private-school students here are the little darlings being chauffeured around, but the public-school kids are often on public transportation.

  4. BL December 22, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

    “the Number 1 reason parents drive is that the school is too far away:”

    Not so sure about that. A town five miles away from me, as well as a town in the next state that I once lived in (and visited last spring) have eminently walk-to-able schools, but still have the dropoff-pickup rigamarole as seen in the videos. By all logic, in both places, only a few kids from the boondocks should be bused, and the rest should be walking (sidewalks galore, these are old towns).

    But that’s so last century.

  5. BL December 22, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    “looks like the school district must not pay for school buses.”

    Somewhere in the article (or was it the comments) it says there are buses, but they run too early for the parents’ or children’s comfort. Of course, nowadays the bus has to stop at every house individually, which greatly lengthens the ride, so they must start early. God forbid a few dozen kids gather at a bus stop.

  6. Papilio December 22, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

    I like your headline 🙂

    Unsurprisingly, I agree with Ann that bikes could fill in that gap between ‘too far to walk’ and ‘ridiculously close to drive (and wait 20 minutes in line)’. Maybe a little cycle path network a few miles around each school would get things rolling…

  7. WendyW December 22, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    Until a county highway was rerouted around a residential area, our local elem had to provide a bus for kids ACROSS THE STREET from the school. I was told there is a state law restricting districts from forcing kids to walk across roads above a certain designation. Never mind that this road only saw heavyish traffic during morning and evening commutes which did not coincide with school hours. Schools need to revisit the concept of crossing guards- either electric or human.

    I bet for many of the families that are within walking distance, they are picking the kids up in order to deliver them to some after school activity, not to take them directly home. Kids no longer have the luxury of down time in which to meander home at their own pace.

  8. James December 22, 2016 at 1:01 pm #

    The problem with cycling is having the facilities to store the bikes during the school day. It’s hardly paranoia to want to lock your bike, or to worry about theft of bikes in a middle- or high-school parking lot (kids are kids, and that means some kids will be morons).

    Plus, there’s the smell. My wife works with middle schoolers, and middle school boys have hormonal issues related to puberty that mean they reek. Add a half-hour or hour of cycling to this, and it would get pungent. Yeah, they COULD go slow and stead, but these are kids–you know as well as I do that they’re going to race each other. Which would be fine on the way home, but not so pleasant on the way to the classroom!

    The survey results are worth looking at. The main reason parents drive kids to school is that it’s on their way. And that makes sense–if you’re already going somewhere, why not go together? The second reason was distance, which also makes sense–there is a limit to how fast you can get somewhere by foot. Personal safety (the paranoid option) is tied with weather. I know that people on this site aren’t keen on allowing weather to deter us from letting kids walk to school, but it is incredibly inconvenient to have kids walk to school in areas where sidewalks are not regularly shoveled during snowstorms, or where it can reach 120 degrees in mid-afternoon (I say this as someone who’s had to do a great deal of hiking as an adult, with proper equipment, in both conditions). Traffic danger “the other paranoid option) is the lowest of the real categories (“Other” being a catch-all term I generally interpret as “I don’t want to say”).

    So really, the main issues were scheduling and distance–perfectly reasonable concerns, ones used by adults all the time to justify carpools and the like. It’s actually really refreshing to see that level of sanity among parents!

  9. BL December 22, 2016 at 1:13 pm #

    “Plus, there’s the smell. My wife works with middle schoolers, and middle school boys have hormonal issues related to puberty that mean they reek. Add a half-hour or hour of cycling to this, and it would get pungent.”

    Well, they can’t make kids shower after gym class anymore, and very few do from what I’ve been told. So how much does a bike ride add?

  10. Sarah December 22, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    we moved to our current home right as my oldest started kindergarten. I was excited, because by the map we were 1.2 miles away from his school, and I envisioned lovely walks to and fro, with his younger brother in a stroller. Reality hit when we actually visited the school for registration. There is a canyon in between us and the school. While it is technically walkable, (I did it exactly once, pushing a stroller) it involves such a strenuous walk that it isn’t feasible for everyday. Thankfully, since we are just outside of a mile away, he can take the bus, although we do have to pay for it.
    Also, I grew up in a rural school, every single child took the bus. You only got picked up from school if you were sick.

  11. LGB December 22, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    My daughter’s school, (which she no longer attends since we’ve moved), hosts the annual Walk to School Day. Children who live far from school, as suggested in this blog post, meet at a designated point and walk together. While I laud the effort, I wish it weren’t treated as some exceptional, annual event. Every other day of the year, there’s that painstaking parking lot line-up.

    Also, it would also help if that goofus in the Red Robin costume wouldn’t show up to Walk to School Day to market a restaurant notorious for its milk shakes and 1000-calorie bacon cheeseburgers.

  12. Jessica December 22, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    Love this article!

    I am pleased to report that many children in my son’s elementsry school walk, and a lot of them (the fourth/fifth grade ones) seem to walk without adults. We are 2 miles away so he rides the bus. Bike is a possibility as he gets older.

    I grew up in Alabama, in a huge county with one elementary school. Because of the geography, some children would be on the bus for over an hour. Were I a parent in that county, I also would not load my kindergartner onto a school bus at 7am, require him to spend a total 2 hours on the day on a bus, and greet him at 4pm. Obviously, kids are resilient, and if the family must do that, it won’t kill the kid. But I understand why the parents brave those unbelievable car drop-off lines. Sometimes there is no good solution (other than building more schools).

  13. Anna December 22, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

    Yes, it’s a shame that so many school boards have moved toward bigger central schools, rather than smaller, neighborhood ones.

    But I also know that “too far” is a relative term. We live just under half a mile from my son’s preschool, as do many other students there (we pass many of their homes on our way there) but we are nearly the only ones who ever walk or bike there, and absolutely the only ones who do so when the weather is anything other than sunny and 70 degrees out. Everyone comments on how “brave” I am – I find it ridiculous. Am I the only person who thinks kids need to get outside and get exercise, even in the winter months? Do these people’s kids just stay indoors from November to May?

    You’d think the teachers would encourage walking to school – I can’t think of a better way to prepare kids to sit in a desk and be focused all day than having them stretch their legs a bit beforehand.

  14. JTW December 22, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

    “Schools need to revisit the concept of crossing guards- either electric or human.”

    And talk to city councils about pedestrian bridges if the road is really that dangerous to cross even at an intersection with traffic lights.

  15. Andrea Drummond December 22, 2016 at 2:41 pm #

    Because we live just over the district line my kid has to go to a school four miles away. Walking isn’t an option. However, if we still live here when she goes to middle school that one is a half mile away. Get yer butt out there. 🙂

  16. SanityAnyone? December 22, 2016 at 3:17 pm #

    I used to grab extra lunch money and buy a caramel iced coffee roll on the way to fourth grade. I looked at all the weird things in the vending machine and saved up for the smoking monkey. If I was wet or snowy, the teacher let me sit on the radiators for a while. Later, I walked home with a friend. There were perils (bullies, dogs, being late due to window shopping), but overall it was a nice existence.

  17. sexhysteria December 22, 2016 at 5:04 pm #

    Afterschool is a traffic nightmare around every school in my city. Another way to get kids to walk home from school is to prohibit doubleparking within 10 blocks of schools.

  18. Kimberly December 22, 2016 at 6:06 pm #

    There are legitimate reasons some schools are to far for kids to walk. In the district my niece attends, there are specialized programs housed at different schools. That means there are a large number of transfer students to attend the programs. There is district transportation, but for some kids it runs to late for them to get to other activities. On the days she has dance class or rehearsals niece gets picked up.

    In my old district growth has caused safety problems. The nice rural neighborhood around a school built in the 1960s now has 4 lane 45 – 50 mph through streets cutting through.

  19. Julie December 22, 2016 at 10:48 pm #

    It’s pretty obvious that Ann lives in LA. Unfortunately, north of the 49th parallel here, biking is not an option for most of the school year so it’s highly likely that yes, even for biking it’s too far. Biking in the snow simply isn’t an option for kids. I know a few hard core cyclists (adults) who will bike year-round but the fact that the kids are going to school in the dark right now makes it dangerous, even if the roads/sidewalks are cleared. Also, we just had 2 weeks straight of -30 Celsius (and lower). I’m not sure of the conversion to Fahrenheit but combined with the wind chill we had extreme weather warnings for most of the 2 weeks because exposed flesh can freeze in under 5 minutes at those temperatures. I do have one (sort of) positive free-range story to report, though. After the first week of indoor recess (these are seriously low temperatures, normally the kids play in the snow and we only have a couple of indoor recesses all winter) my daughter came home from school and reported, “They actually let us go outside today. The Vice-Principal wanted to let us but the Principal said no. Then she went into one of the classrooms and saw what the kids were doing so she let us go outside for a few minutes.” They didn’t go out for the entire recess but they did go out for bit (the wind chill was also not quite as severe on that particular day). It can be a fine line here between dangerously cold and being okay to be out but I think that our school managed to strike a good balance during a particularly cold snap (surprisingly uncharacteristic even for frozen Edmonton during December). I can also tell you that the teachers are so glad the students have Christmas break now and are praying for slightly warmer temperatures in the New Year. I don’t like making my kids stay indoors but there are times when it’s actually for their own safety. When it gets back up to -20 Celsius, I promise you, I will kick them outside again.

  20. James Pollock December 23, 2016 at 12:38 am #

    The problem with “have all the parents drop the kids off a couple of blocks away” is that the main reason it’s dangerous to walk to school at all is because of all the cars going to and then leaving the school, usually in a godawful hurry each way. Increasing the dropoff radius just means the kids have a longer, more dangerous gauntlet to run. Walk the whole way, or take the bus. Only use a car to get to school if there’s a reason for it (missed the bus, need to carry something to or from school that is too bulky/heavy for a backpack, leaving early or arriving late because of a doctor’s appointment, etc.) and things get better for everyone.

  21. Katie G December 23, 2016 at 6:43 am #

    I wonder how much more successf nthis school has because it’s private. Like it or not, people who’ve chosen a private school have done just that- chosen to be part of it- and therefore are almost always far more involved and concerned as a group than public-school parents. (not to say public school parents never are but that the average is far higher.)
    our nephew (freshman) goes to a private Christian school some seven miles from their home, which does mean a car ride. Wish it were otherwise, but so be it.

  22. Katie G December 23, 2016 at 6:50 am #

    I clicked through and read the Streetsblog piece and did a real facepalm at “the reason most of the parents drive their children to school is that they think the buses come too early”. Sorry, that’s part and parcel of the school system! What utter selfish nonsense!

  23. Backroads December 23, 2016 at 9:17 am #

    I teach at a charter school that does not provide transportation service, yet puts no distance limit on enrollment. It’s the first time in my teaching career I’ve seen an actual drop-off/pick-up service… because a great deal of our students live miles (an hour away, in one case… I believe one parent works in the vicinity, so it makes sense that way). My last school, however, had plenty of walkers, thankfully.

  24. librarian December 23, 2016 at 10:13 am #

    I totally agree that school buses come ridiculously early. My daughter might be able to survive it, but my own quality of life would severely deteriorate if I had to wake up 45 minutes earlier than I do now.
    Thank god for living in NYC – in her last year of elementary school she just walked those 25 blocks to school (except for maybe 5-6 days that were stormy enough to justify a subway ride) It took 30 minutes to walk to school, compared to about an hour on a school bus. It also took away so much stress of needing to rush and run in order not to miss the bus (if you walk to school, then leaving 5 minutes later than usual simply means you’ve got to walk faster). Finally, I felt good knowing that, no matter what, she gets to spend an hour a day outdoors and actively moving.
    One problem I had to deal with is the number and size of books and other materials kids needed to haul to school and back every day. I worried about her spine having to handle that much weight for a long time every day, and ended up buying her a real high-quality hiking backpack, with belt, chest straps etc, for three times the price of an ordinary school backpack (on the upside, this backpack still looks like new two years later). Other than that, there was no downside to walking at all. Her sense of direction and city navigation skills improved almost instantly, and she was very proud of her autonomy.
    I have to say that even in our super-walkable and safe neighborhood, she knew of only one other 5th-grader from her school who was also getting to/from school by himself…although a number of kids envied her and tried to persuade their parents to let them do the same…

  25. Diane December 23, 2016 at 11:36 am #

    Walking in my city is a heck of a lot safer than cycling, in general. I guess there are a lot of variables even for kids in the same communities. maybe that’ll be my New Years resolution: to more actively spread the word that my kids walk home and invite other parents to at least consider it as an option.

  26. Papilio December 23, 2016 at 1:02 pm #

    “The problem with cycling is having the facilities to store the bikes during the school day. It’s hardly paranoia to want to lock your bike, or to worry about theft of bikes in a middle- or high-school parking lot (kids are kids, and that means some kids will be morons).

    Plus, there’s the smell. My wife works with middle schoolers, and middle school boys have hormonal issues related to puberty that mean they reek. Add a half-hour or hour of cycling to this, and it would get pungent. Yeah, they COULD go slow and stead, but these are kids–you know as well as I do that they’re going to race each other. Which would be fine on the way home, but not so pleasant on the way to the classroom!”

    This is very funny for me, because I read nothing here about actual, more or less North America-specific problems (like meters of snow or canyons or dangerous roads). Bike parking facilities are always going to be (way) smaller than the giant car parking lot we see on the photo. All you need is a shed or even a fenced off area with maybe a camera or two. (Example at a secondary (grade 7-12) school: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NUgB_xkIvU ) (Just don’t put the bike parking somewhere out of sight at the back of the building where almost no one will come.)

    How much teens reek after cycling depends a lot on how much effort they put into it and how much anti-perspirant they use. Answers: very little, a lot. In practice, teens on bikes are the slugs of the streets (which is why teachers who also cycle to school leave way earlier, so they don’t get stuck behind large flocks of teens that are hard to overtake…). It looks something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrQ-d2PBUto
    So, do build those cycle tracks, people. They will bring you smaller, different problems that you will be glad to have, knowing the alternative.

  27. Papilio December 23, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

    Nice illustration (literally) of the point: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/535f2388e4b04f774f7c046d/t/5497212de4b0385fffd6110b/1419190586144/?format=1000w

  28. hineata December 23, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

    @Papilio – yes, I wondered about that too. The only time I see teens actually racing on bikes is during exactly that – races. Otherwise they just meander along slowly ☺. Who’s in a hurry to get to school?!!

    As to bikes being kept safe, surely that’s what bike stands and lock-up chains are for? And try to ensure your kid gets to know the tough guys at the school, lol – that’s how my ultra-weedy boy avoided bike theft bullies at least twice at high school. ☺.

  29. Papilio December 23, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

    @Hineata: “Who’s in a hurry to get to school?!!”

    Well, if you’re running late… But otherwise: yes. Plus they’re barely awake, too…

    “Otherwise they just meander along slowly ☺” Kind of like cows, or something. With as many people abreast as space allows! Hahaha 🙂

  30. Puzzled December 26, 2016 at 10:08 pm #

    A few years ago I volunteered at the “Walk to School Day.” Color me underwhelmed. The whole atmosphere was one of “what a scary, dangerous thing this is!” I think it sends the wrong message to kids – that walking to school requires a bevy of volunteers surrounding the kids on all sides, the police closing down the road, etc. I can’t picture a kid deciding, based on that, to walk to school alone the next day.

  31. James December 27, 2016 at 3:13 pm #

    Papilio: “Bike parking facilities are always going to be (way) smaller than the giant car parking lot we see on the photo.”

    That may be true, but the parking lot is an established piece of infrastructure, meaning it costs very little to maintain. In contrast, installing bike racks for every child–even if you insist that the children pay for the bikes and locks themselves, which would be political suicide in any state with poverty in it or with a substantial city in it, given the USA’s political climate–would be a new structure, and require more money to install. Getting money for a bike rack would oblige you to cut funding for some other program; we are notoriously stingy with school funding. If you’re building a new school….well, you should be placed under psychiatric care in my opinion, given how well that usually goes (my family works construction, and I’ve seen how ugly it gets). But regardless, you have to convince the school board, PTA, and the activist members of the public (most of which are helicopter parents, practically by definition) that biking is a good enough idea to spend money on. Ain’t gonna happen.

    As for the smell, I can only go by my wife’s reports–I’m practically anosmic. But as a middle school teacher she’s assured me that teenage boys reek, and exercise makes it worse. It doesn’t matter if they’re slugs on the road (almost inevitable given the way bikes work vs. cars); they’ll stink. Obviously others have different experience, however; as I said, I can’t verify any of this personally.

  32. FRmom December 27, 2016 at 8:05 pm #

    None of these explanations give reasons for why the parents can’t drop the kids off a few blocks from the school and let them walk from there. I sometimes do have to pick mine up for activities after school, but I still insist that teacher always assume my kids are walking so I can have them walk to a spot far from the chaos and be able to get in and out without the ridiculous drama of gridlock residential traffic!

  33. bmommyx2 December 28, 2016 at 12:27 am #

    Our school district sponsors two walk to school days each year. It’s hard for my kids to walk to school, mostly because we barely make it or are late & it’s a bit far. I would love to live close enough for them to walk.