The Decline of Walking and Bicycling

Rolling Terrace Elementary School, Rockville, MD.

Not long ago, children routinely moved around their neighborhoods by foot or by bicycle, and that was often how they traveled to and from school. That is no longer the case. Whether looking at the total proportion of children walking and bicycling to school, the proportion of children who live within a mile of school or the proportion of children living within one mile of school who walk or bike, the decline is apparent.

  • In 1969, 48 percent of children 5 to 14 years of age usually walked or bicycled to school. [2]
  • In 2009, 13 percent of children 5 to 14 years of age usually walked or bicycled to school. [2]
  • In 1969, 41 percent of children in grades K–8 lived within one mile of school;
    • 89 percent of these children usually walked or bicycled to school. [3]
  • In 2009, 31 percent of children in grades K–8 lived within one mile of school;
    • 35 percent of these children usually walked or bicycled to school. [2]

Welty Middle School, New Philadelphia, OH.

The circumstances that have led to a decline in walking and bicycling to school did not happen overnight and have created a self-perpetuating cycle. As motor vehicle traffic increases, parents become more convinced that it is unsafe for their children to walk or bicycle to school. They begin driving them to school, thereby adding even more traffic to the road and sustaining the cycle. Understanding the many reasons why so many children do not walk or bicycle to school is the first step in interrupting the cycle.

Many factors contribute to the reduction in children walking and bicycling to school. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a nationwide survey of parents to find out the most common barriers that prevented them from allowing their children to walk to school. 1,588 adults answered questions about barriers to walking to school for their youngest child aged 5 to 18 years. Parents cited one or more of the following six reasons:

Barrier [4] Percentage of parents identifying with the barrier
Distance to school:61.5
Traffic-related danger:30.4
Weather:18.6
Crime danger:11.7
Opposing school policy:6.0
Other reasons (not identified):15.0

Examining the underlying issues for each barrier provides an opportunity to understand how they can be addressed. These issues are explored in the following sections.

Distance to School

Up through the 1960s, many schools were located in the center of most communities. On average, 41% of students between kindergarten and 8th grade lived within one mile of school in 1969.[3] This close proximity to residential areas contributed to high rates of walking and bicycling to school. In fact, 88% of children who lived within one mile of school walked or biked to get there.

Beginning in the 1970s, rather than renovating existing schools or building within the community, many school districts began building schools on the edge of communities where land costs are lower and acreage available.[6] Larger schools, which have larger student enrollments, result in school catchment areas that are more geographically dispersed than in the past. Expanded catchment areas require students to travel farther and make it difficult, if not impossible, to walk or bicycle to school. In 2009, 31% of students between kindergarten and 8th grade lived within one mile of school, down from 41% in 1969. Of those children that live within one mile of school, only 35% walked or biked — compared to the 89% that walked or biked in 1969.[2],[3]

There are a host of factors that contribute to the placement of schools on the fringe of communities. These factors include increasing land costs, school siting standards, school funding formulas, existing land use policies and lack of coordination between planners and school officials.

  • In 2010, 25 states had some form of minimum acreage standards for school siting. These standards often demand large tracts of land that can be found only in less developed parts of communities or outside of town.[7]
  • School funding formulas that favor new construction over renovation of existing schools often do not consider long-term transportation, operation and maintenance and infrastructure improvement costs (e.g., sewer, water and road) associated with building in a new location. [6]
  • The prevailing land use pattern and zoning ordinances require the separation of land by usage type. Low, medium, and high density residential, commercial and institutional uses are each separated from one another and connected by motor vehicle. This makes walking to school in suburban areas challenging because of the low housing density (number of homes per acre) within walking and bicycling distance and the safety issues posed by busy roads or an incomplete sidewalk system.[5]
  • Oftentimes school boards communicate with planning officials only after a decision is made about a site for a new school or whether to close or renovate an existing school. One study, examining school siting in North Carolina, found that in several communities school districts were exempt from local planning and zoning ordinances.[5]

School consolidation has lengthened the trip between home and school, and longer trips coincide with few children walking and bicycling. By increasing the distance between home and school, consolidation of schools may discourage physically active trips to school while encouraging higher levels of motor vehicle use and pollution.

Traffic-Related Danger

Traffic-related danger was the second most common reason cited by parents for not allowing their children to walk to and from school, according to the nationwide survey.[4]

In 2010, 311 pedestrians and bicyclists ages 14 and under were killed, and approximately 23,000 children in this same age group were injured while walking or bicycling in the United States.[8] Many parents respond by driving their child to school. However, being inside a motor vehicle does not promise safety. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death for school-age children.[9] In the United States during 2010, 1,210 children ages 14 and under were killed and 171,000 children in this age group were injured as motor vehicle occupants.[8]

Parents driving their students to school comprise up to 25 percent of morning rush hour traffic.[10], [11] As the percentage of children walking and bicycling to school continues to decrease, motor vehicle traffic increases, and parents become more convinced that walking to school is unsafe for their children. Parents may believe that the safest way to school is for them to drive their children, but may not be aware that by driving they contribute to the traffic congestion and traffic danger surrounding the school.

As communities have accommodated increased motor vehicle traffic volumes, opportunities to walk and bicycle have suffered. Many places have no sidewalks, and where they are present, they may be in need of maintenance or are blocked.

Weather Conditions

Chester, VT.

While the weather has not changed since a generation ago when so many children walked or bicycled, adverse weather was the third most frequently cited reason parents gave for not allowing their children to walk to school.[4] Identifying weather as a barrier could be reflective of contemporary social norms in the United States, where people are accustomed to driving for almost every trip. This makes it easy to forego walking and jump in the car at the first sign of cold, rain or heat. Nevertheless, Safe Routes to School efforts have been launched in areas with all kinds of weather, from cities across Canada to Anchorage, Alaska; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Arlington, Massachusetts.

Crime Danger

Almost 12 percent of parents in the CDC survey cited that crime danger prevented them from allowing their children to walk to or from school.[4] Parental fears of crime include child kidnapping and assault. However, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2002 only two percent of reported missing children were the result of non-family abductions. Of the other 98 percent of missing children reported, seven percent were family abductions and the remaining were not related to abduction circumstances, such as a child was lost, injured, unable to make contact with a caregiver or stranded.[12]

These issues can generate strong fears, and communities are finding ways to address these safety concerns. Crime concerns may be based on both real and perceived crime. Whether real or perceived, these fears affect how many children are allowed to walk or bicycle to school. SRTS programs work to identify the real dangers and the perceptions and then try to address both.

Sometimes children face danger in their own neighborhoods from gangs or other illegal activities. These issues also have been addressed by community groups that want walking conditions to be safe. For example, in Detroit, Michigan, the Injury Free Coalition for Kids and city officials joined together to identify concerns and began working on improvements in traffic flow, demolishing abandoned and burned out homes, cleaning up abandoned lots, improving the aesthetics of the childrens' routes and working with the Detroit Police Department to address the presence of drug dealers and crime along the routes.

Opposing School Policies

Natomas Elementary School, Sacramento, CA.

Six percent of parents identified school policies as a barrier for walking between home and school.[4] Some schools prohibit children from walking and bicycling to school. Although a school rule may have stemmed from safety concerns for students, its implications could work against a SRTS program. The solution may be to address the safety issues rather than permanently prohibit walking and bicycling to school. Identifying and understanding the reasons underlying the policy can help programs address important issues and reverse the policy if appropriate.

Next: Health risks