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Friday, July 11, 2014

The bus is back, time to urge kids to walk or ride their bike

Friday, August 19, 2011

The daily commute recently took on a fresh-but-familiar look: School buses have returned to the streets.

For many of us, the lumbering yellow buses and accompanying parent car parades evoke happy notions of freshly scrubbed kids embarking on great educational adventures. What we're too often forgetting, though, is what these daily caravans replaced: Energetic conga lines of kids walking and biking to and from school.

And what we failed to realize until too late is the benefit our kids derived from the old daily routine: Exercise and fresh air.

For our kids' sake, it's time to get them back on their feet and bikes.

Not long ago, it would have seemed unnecessary to advocate for kids to walk or bike to school. After all, 40 years ago more than 40 percent of kids got to school by walking or pedaling, and virtually every kid who lived within a mile of school walked or biked to school.

Today? Only about 15 percent of kids get to school on their own power. We can point to a lot of reasons for this decline. Certainly, extracurricular activities and parents' schedules urge families to opt for buses and cars, but we also have to acknowledge more concrete reasons: the way we've built our communities.

In recent decades, we made it virtually impossible for kids to get to school by non-motorized means. We built neighborhoods without sidewalks. We designed streets with room only for automotive traffic. We located our schools in places that can't be safely reached by car or bike. In response, many districts banned walking and biking to school, even if kids live literally across the street from their classrooms.

The result? Parents driving children to schools make up as much as 30 percent of morning traffic.

Half of children struck by cars near schools are hit by parents driving children to school. The air is fouled by idling cars and buses. And, while it isn't the only factor, we must assume that the decreased physical activity brought on by our car-bound ways contributed to the fact that 30 percent of Indiana youth are overweight, and many are classified as obese.

The good news is that, in some communities, the daily school-bound bus-and-car tide is subsiding. Schools, families and neighborhoods are creating a walking-and-biking revival. They're organizing "walking school bus" groups to walk to and from school, gathering volunteer crossing guards, installing new bike racks and more. As a result, more kids are getting to school on two feet or two wheels.

Unfortunately, increasing the number of walkers and bikers typically requires more than parental support and crossing guards. Infrastructure will need to be improved. Building sites will need to be reconsidered. School policies will need to be changed. Elected officials and community leaders will need to commit to investing in the health and safety of our youth.

Such measures can be challenging and costly, but communities, schools and neighborhoods have resources that can help. Some federal, state, local and private sources provide grants for such programs, and, in Indiana, partners of Health by Design (www.healthbydesignonline.org) can provide information, technical assistance, and networking support to help interested school communities. The National Center for Safe Routes to School (www.saferoutesinfo.org) and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (www.saferoutespartnership.org) provide similar support across the country.

Consider how your school and community could better support walking and biking to and from school, and plan now to participate in Walk to School Day ("Hike it! Bike it! I like it!") on Oct. 5.

Our children and our communities will reap the health, environmental and cost-savings benefits of a safe and active daily commute to and from school.

Kim Irwin coordinates the Health by Design Coalition.