Over the past 30 years, the number of overweight children in the United States has soared while the number of kids walking to school has plummeted. The two trends, and the potential link between them, have prompted a national effort to get children walking to school again.
The walk-to-school initiative is now in 138 communities.
In Massachusetts, the Safe Routes to School initiative was first piloted in Arlington in 2001 and has since spread to more than 460 elementary and middle schools in 138 communities. But until recently, there was no systematic effort to identify which communities would benefit the most from a walk-to-school program.
Now the nonprofit group WalkBoston is teaming up with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to develop a methodology for identifying communities where walking to school could potentially make a real difference in children’s lives.?The two groups analyze a community’s sidewalk system, calculate its risk for obesity, and use online surveys to tabulate the percentage of children who live close to school but are nevertheless driven by their parents. (Low income is used as a proxy for obesity, on the theory that healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are relatively expensive and poorer neighborhoods have fewer full-service grocers.)
Revere and Malden are the first two communities to be targeted using the new methodology. Both have safe sidewalk networks, at least two-thirds of their students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and online surveys indicate over half of those students who live within a mile of school are driven there. Now the focus is shifting toward convincing students (and their parents) to get out of cars and on to sidewalks.
Reducing obesity isn’t the program’s only goal. Safe Routes to School also wants to reduce vehicle trips and curb auto emissions. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that transportation to school accounts for 10 to 14 percent of all vehicles on the road during the morning commute. Increased traffic congestion poses a danger to pedestrians and a 2008 study in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management indicated nearly a third of schools in nine metropolitan areas were located in close proximity to major roadways, putting children at “a potentially increased risk for asthma and other chronic respiratory problems.”
Wendy Landman, WalkBoston’s executive director, says getting more children to walk to school offers dividends on a variety of fronts. “It sits at a nexus of different issues: health, air quality, safety, and quality of life in general,” she says.
The Safe Routes to School initiative, financed primarily by the federal government, is now active in more than 40 states. It is a loose coalition of parents, teachers, schools, community leaders, and nonprofit organizations that educates children about the benefits of walking, conducts safety courses, implements pedestrian infrastructure projects, and convinces parents to let their children walk to school, in organized groups or independently where possible.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of children age 2 to 19 are obese, triple the level in 1980. Meanwhile, the percentage of children who walk to school regularly has been declining, falling from 50 percent in 1969 to just 13 percent in 2009. The decline in walking is attributed to a number of factors, including parental concerns over speeding traffic, distracted drivers, inadequate walking infrastructure, and worries about inappropriate attention from strangers.
Maria DiMaggio, parent of a student at Northeast Elementary School in Waltham and project coordinator at the nonprofit Healthy Waltham, says the main reasons parents drive their children to school are convenience and safety. “People are more and more pressed for time. For many people, the easiest thing is to drop the kids at school on the way to work … [and] with so many cars around, we don’t feel safe,” she says.
In Arlington, the program at Dallin Elementary School is still going strong, despite the pilot project having ended years ago. According to WalkBoston, only 38 percent of Dallin students walked to school before the Safe Routes program was launched in 2000, while 56 percent walked by the end of the 2002-2003 school year.