Helping Johnny (and Joanie) Walk to School

“Aside from reduced CO2, less traffic time and health advantages, the most important benefit of walk to school programs is teaching children self-reliance.”

The quote comes from architect and urbanist Ann Daigle, who puts into practice all the things that I advocate as a smart growth loyalist. And it’s a fitting intro to telling you about the National Trust’s important new report, Helping Johnny Walk to School. The report is a sequel to the Trust’s seminal Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School, co-authored by my friend Constance Beaumont and published in 2002.

Helping Johnny Walk stresses policy recommendations and new ways (in many cases older but now under-appreciated ways) of thinking about the role of schools in our communities. I’ve written extensively about school sprawl, where some isolated newer schools are within walking distance of nobody, occupy lots twice as big as Disneyland, and are designed so that you can’t tell one from a Walmart, other than through signage and the presence or absence of shopping carts. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) Schools should be community anchors, not drains.

The new report is authored by Renee Kuhlman, who graciously gives credit to her able partners in the task. She introduces the report in a blog post:

A school’s location has ripple effects on everything from the health of a local neighborhood to the health of its citizens. Consider this: moving a school to the outskirts of town typically means the loss of an older or historic school building, less public and private investment in a neighborhood, and lower property values. Not to mention the longer travel distances that increase the number of auto and bus trips, which in turn raise greenhouse gas emissions and busing costs.

But what about our kids? How are they affected by outskirts schools? Think of it this way – if a school is located miles and miles from the residents it serves, few students can walk or bike. With so much concern these days focused on childhood obesity, we cannot overlook this simple fact. The American Academy of Pediatrics certainly did not; in 2009, this esteemed group found that school location has “played a significant role in the decreased rates of walking to school, and changes in policy may help to increase the number of children who are able to walk to school.”

The report stresses the many benefits of community-centered schools. In particular, it expands upon the following:

  • Community-centered schools encourage close ties with community members.
  • Community-centered schools offer educational benefits.
  • Community-centered schools save on construction and operating costs.
  • Community-centered schools offer location efficiency.
  • Community-centered schools help the environment.
  • Community-centered schools encourage healthier families.

Highly recommended.

Just after I learned of the Trust’s new report, I was heartened to see at least one school district take some aggressive remedial action. In direct contrast to the school in upstate New York that (until embarrassment led to a change) actually banned walking or cycling to school, an elementary school in Milton, Ontario, near Toronto, has done the opposite: it is now a “walking-only” destination (bikes and scooters are OK, too). Writing on Streetsblog, Sarah Goodyear quotes her Toronto correspondent:

The Halton School Board’s Active and Safe Routes to School and local public health officials launched the program this year at Milton’s P.L. Robertson Elementary School. Costing the school board $125,000, the ban on driving is a one-year pilot with hopes of expanding to other schools in the community in the coming years.

So far the project has been a success, with project manager Jenifer Jenkins saying that the school quickly reached a 100% compliance rate. Surprisingly the rate stayed high even as the weather worsened, indicating a broader change in behavior. Jenkins also says that some students who qualify for buses have opted to walk instead so as to join their friends. This implies that walking will become more attractive to students as more of their peers do start doing it.

As Goodyear writes, “A little-mentioned side benefit of encouraging kids to travel to school using their own power is that it will get parents out of cars as well.” While I can see reasons for exceptions here and there, and I would be willing to bet that the school allows them, this is terrific. Of course, you need a walkable school to begin with in order to make it work, and that’s where the Trust’s recommendations come in.


(For those who are interested, a somewhat longer version of this post, with more photos, appears on my NRDC blog, where I write (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment. For regular updates, please see my home page.)

Kaid Benfield is director for sustainable communities and smart growth at The Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC. He has his own blog on land development and community issues and enjoys contributing here, too, since there is so much common ground.

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