Deciding If a Walking School Bus Is the Right Fit
Today, fewer children are walking and bicycling to school, and more children are at risk of becoming overweight and obese than children 30 years ago (Koplan, Liverman, & Kraak, 2005; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d.). Encouraging a healthy lifestyle requires creative solutions that are safe and fun. Implementing a walking school bus can be both.
For many parents, safety concerns are one of the primary reasons they are reluctant to allow their children to walk to school (Martin & Carlson, 2005). Providing adult supervision may help reduce those worries and meet the needs of families who live within walking or bicycling distance of school. For families that live too far to walk from home, remote parking and meeting locations offer a way for them to participate in a walking school bus.
A walking school bus offers many benefits to different community members. Below are some of the possible ways that children, adults, the school and the broader community can all profit.
Central Elementary School, Ellicott, MD
- Have fun.
- Learn pedestrian safety with adult guidance and supervision.
- Participate in physical activity as part of their day.
- Foster healthy habits that could last a lifetime.
- Learn more about their neighborhoods.
- Socialize with friends and get to know children of other ages.
- Gain a sense of independence.
- Arrive at school alert and ready to learn.
- Meet other families.
- Have concerns addressed which may have kept them from allowing their children to walk to school (such as traffic, personal safety or distance).
- Save gas required to drive to and from school.
- Enjoy physical activity.
- Meet other families.
- Provide a service to the school and community.
- Reduce traffic congestion around schools.
- Address reduced or lack of bus service.
- Have students who arrive on time and alert.
All community members
- Travel with fewer cars on the road.
- Live with less air pollution.
- Gain a sense of community.
- Learn that walking is a viable transportation option.
Studies report that children participating in a walking school bus particularly like the chance to socialize and spend time with friends (O’Fallon, 2001; Mackett, Lucas, Paskins, & Turbin, 2003). Parents, on the other hand, appreciate having more time to themselves, making fewer trips to school and knowing that their children are supervised by an adult on the way to school (O’Fallon, 2001).
The walking school bus concept has been very popular in some communities and not in others. Community characteristics and issues appear to play a role in whether walking school buses take hold. If very few children live within walking distance, a walking school bus is not going to greatly increase the number of children able to participate unless a remote parking area is identified so that families can drive, park and walk. Walking school bus programs that require several volunteers can be hard to sustain if there is little interest or availability from adults. A pilot Safe Routes to School program reported that informal, neighborhood-initiated programs sometimes developed where more structured programs did not succeed. More formally organized programs got off the ground in some areas that had supportive volunteers available (Marin County Bicycle Coalition, 2001).
If traffic conditions make it unsafe to walk, a walking school bus program should not begin until the problems have been addressed. An exception is if there are children that are already walking and must do so even though conditions are unsafe. In this case, the adult supervision provided by a walking school bus can be a way to make it less dangerous. Safe Routes to School programs are ideal for addressing safety concerns. Generally, these programs take a broader look at identifying and making necessary changes to establish environments that are safe and appealing for children to bicycle and walk. See the National Center for Safe Routes to School website (www.saferoutesinfo.org) for more information about programs and activities.