A Walking School Bus seems a little counter-intuitive at first glance, but it may be one of the most effective ways for cities, like Phoenix, Arizona, to spread awareness about walkable neighborhoods. With a group of kids, a couple of community volunteers, and a safe route to school, communities can reshape the next generation’s view of transportation. No new laws or costly infrastructure required, just the will to organize and walk.
In 1969, 89% of U.S. children in grades K-8 who lived within one mile of school walked or bicycled. Forty years later, that number has dropped to 35%. The decline can be attributed to a number of factors, especially safety concerns due to heavy traffic and crime, whether perceived or real. In order to reverse the trend, the National Center for Safe Routes to School assists community efforts to increase walking and bicycling to school. In Phoenix, Safe Routes to School programs have been carried out by Maricopa County Department of Public Health, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the City of Phoenix, Valley Metro, and even local schools. One of the many tools encouraged by Safe Routes to School is the Walking School Bus, a group of children walking to or from school, chaperoned by an adult volunteer. The program goes beyond pedestrian awareness and provides benefits that could sway even the staunchest SUV-wielding soccer moms including:
- Daily physical activity;
- Eyes on neighborhood streets;
- Identified opportunities for pedestrian improvements;
- Reduced speeds and traffic congestion near schools;
- Reduced vehicle emissions; and
- Increased awareness of the social opportunity lost by single-occupancy vehicles.
One of the most robust Walking School Buses in Phoenix was started by a parent in 2011 at Eagle College Prep Elementary, who now leads the entire school’s Safe Routes to School program. Of the 595 students enrolled last year, 240 (40%) participated in the school’s “Walk to School Day” and 15% currently use one of the school’s three “buses.” While early success is evident, the program is not without its challenges. Committing and retaining volunteers year after year can be onerous, especially if teachers and school administration aren't actively advocating for participation. Without volunteers, these types of programs have slim chance of sustainability because program funding is often tied to grants that aren't always renewed. Walking to school is also often perceived as unsafe and inconvenient, despite the fact that a well-organized program has a safe, planned route and saves parents the stress of dropping their children off by car.
Support for Walking School Buses can and must come from multiple angles. Parent participation, school policy, traffic calming engineering, social networking, federal grants, and teacher encouragement are all important pieces to make the program successful and to change the way kids think of transportation. With excellent weather nine months out of the year, Phoenix has the potential to be the nation’s poster child for Walking School Buses.
Limited resources and an automobile-centered society have discouraged many advocates for walkable communities. However, creative community-driven solutions can shift how we approach daily transportation. Is your community taking back its streets? How can kids be a part of the solution?
Credits: Images by Cristina McKenney. Data linked to sources.