Safe Routes To School - Why?
Pose the question, “How did you get to school when you were a kid?” to a roomful of adults, and chances are the great majority will say that they walked. If you ask them what they experienced while walking, the following responses are typical:
My brothers and sisters and I got together with some
Man, we were really awake when we got to school! It was cold out in the morning and walking really got our blood going.
My mom walked with me when I was little, and then I walked
It was always nice and quiet walking down the road in the
When I got to be about 12, I didn't walk anymore.
Seldom in our years of working with people to develop Safe Routes To School (SR2S) in their communities have we heard an adult say anything negative about walking to school. There may have been the occasional bully, but, as one man said, “He gave us a reason to run fast and we got stronger!”
Today however, in the United States, fewer than 15 percent of children walk to school every day.1 In response to this situation, many efforts to encourage walking and biking to school have sprung up. The growth of these efforts has come to be called the SR2S movement. Some projects have existed for several years; some started recently. Their common goal is to increase the number of children who walk and bike to school safely.
To understand the SR2S movement, we must first answer this question: Why has there been a decline - in just one generation - of children walking and bicycling to school?
That is not an easy question to answer. We all realize that the United States is not the same as it was in 1950. However, if we look at how life in this country has changed during the past 50 years, some explanations begin to emerge. There have been significant changes in two major areas: community design and travel patterns.
Community Design and Travel Patterns
Before World War II, Americans lived in compact towns and cities, and they walked to shops, schools, and work. While the United States population has nearly doubled—from 150 million in 1950 to 287 million in 2002—and the population in urban areas has increased by 25 percent, the percentage of urbanized land has changed much more dramatically—it has quadrupled. The suburbanization of America has resulted in communities that are significantly more spread out. The size of residential lots is much greater now than before 1950. For example, in 1950, around the Chesapeake Bay, each person required .18 of an acre for residential and commercial use. By 1988, each person required .65 acre.2, 3
This expansion around towns and cities significantly changed travel patterns. Where walking and transit use once predominated, the private car has become the normal way to get around. The number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased from 718 billion per year in 1960 to more than two trillion per year in 1999.4 As with land use, the increase in motor vehicle use has grown much faster than the rate of population growth. Driving to school has significantly contributed to increased auto use. It has been estimated that the “school run” adds 20-30 percent to traffic volume during the morning commute.5
Changes in land use and driving patterns certainly seem to have contributed to the decreasing number of children walking to school. Have other changes led to the Safe Routes To School movement? It appears that the answer is yes.
At the same time as land use and transportation practices have been changing, we have seen significant changes in environmental quality. Air pollution concerns in the 1960s and '70s resulted in the passage of regulations aimed at reducing various pollutants. While many air pollutants have decreased during the past 30 years, the decline is now threatened by the continuing rise in the number of cars and trucks on the road, and in the miles each vehicle is driven.3 However, one important emission has not decreased—carbon dioxide (CO2). This “greenhouse gas” is released in direct proportion to the gallons of gasoline consumed. The amount of carbon dioxide American cars and light trucks emit into the atmosphere has steadily increased. From 1970 to 1999, the amount increased by 56 percent, culminating in an estimated 300 million metric tons of carbon being released in the latest year.6, 7 Concerns about global warming have grown during this period as well.
Changing land development and driving patterns have also caused loss of natural habitat and farmland. Water quality suffers because more pavement is required to handle the increase in vehicles. This results in runoff of water laced with toxic substances from the pavement into lakes, streams, and rivers instead of being absorbed by the earth.3, 8
The common goal of Safe Routes To School projects is to increase the number of children who walk and bike to school safely.