Students, community benefit from walking, biking to school

Participating in the International Walk to School program provides communities, schools, parents and children a classic win-win scenario. Everyone wins, and there are no losers.

Physical activity
Free, convenient, enjoyable and does not require special equipment or training: Walking is a great way for adults and kids to be active. Lack of physical activity is a major cause of chronic illness and death for our country’s adults. Being overweight can cause health problems like diabetes during childhood and research shows that physically inactive kids are more likely to grow up to be physically inactive adults — and are therefore at high risk for obesity and related illnesses.

There are plenty of great reasons to walk to school — less traffic, safer streets, cleaner air — but one of the best is that children and parents will be healthier. With obesity rates skyrocketing and only one-quarter of American's able to get the Surgeon General's recommended daily dose of exercise (just 30 minutes), it's an ideal time to encourage people to walk to school for their own health and well-being.

Kids need to move
Obesity rates among children have more than doubled in the past twenty years, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. Even worse, rates of obesity are much higher among minority children than among white youth, suggesting a grave social inequity in the availability of safe, healthy recreational opportunities.

Add walking to the mix.

Physical activity recommendations for children suggest that they need a variety of activities each day-some intense, some less-so, some informal, some structured. Walking or cycling to and from school is an ideal way to get some of that activity at no extra cost to the child or family.

Walking to school is a missed opportunity. Roughly 10% of children nationwide walk to school regularly. Even among those kids living within a mile of their school, only 25 percent are regular walkers.

Parents who walk or bike to school with their kids get to be sociable. Nearly nine out ten parents who walk their children to school see it as an ideal way to meet new people, according to a survey in the UK. Many said that the school gate was a better place to meet new people than pubs, clubs, evening classes or the supermarket.

Air Quality and the Environment
Walking or biking to school protects the environment and your health. When children decide to lace-up their sneakers to walk, or strap on their bike helmets to pedal to school instead of riding in a car, they reduce the amount of air pollutants emitted by automobiles.
These air pollutants can be especially harmful to children. Children have respiratory systems that are not fully developed, they spend more time at higher activity levels, which can cause them to breath more deeply and take in more air pollution.

They are also more likely to have asthma or other acute respiratory problems that can be aggravated by air pollution than other age groups. By walking or riding a bike to school, children lower the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which helps reduce toxic air pollutants.

Vehicles emit a variety of air pollutants. For example, ground level ozone is created by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compound gases in the presence of heat and sunlight.

The promotion of bicycling and walking to school provides an opportunity to address safety. Every year, about 25,000 child pedestrians are injured by motor vehicles. Reducing the risk of injury includes teaching children pedestrian and bicycle skills

It also means reminding drivers to watch for others using the road.

• Hazardous conditions along routes to school need to be identified and fixed.
• Some of the best ways to increase the safety of a child's walk or bike to school are to:
• Provide safe, well-maintained walkways separate from vehicles;
• Teach children to cross streets at marked crossings and to always look left-right-left
• Slow traffic in neighborhoods and near schools through traffic calming and enforcement
• Work with parents of children with disabilities and special education professionals to identify accessibility barriers
• Ensure that walkways are continues and meet national accessibility standards
• Install curb ramps at every intersection and mid-block crossing
• Provide accessible pedestrian signals at intersections

The 'Four Es'

Consider the range of tools available to address safety.

Programs used to teach children safe walking behaviors, such as proper crossing at crosswalks, and adults safe driving behaviors.

Any efforts to encourage safe, healthy, regular walking, such as special events, announcements, public relations, and incentive programs.

Efforts by law enforcement to aggressively enforce posted speeds and traffic laws to create safer driving habits; often used in neighborhoods and near schools.

The design and building of facilities — roadways, sidewalks, lighting, signs — to enhance the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. Includes, for example, traffic calming methods.

Parents and other adults worry about children encountering bullies or strangers on the way to school. There may be a fear of kidnapping or assault. While the actual occurrences are extremely rare, consideration should be taken to address parent fears and create a plan to reduce risk.

Parent accompaniment of children on the walk to school is one way to solve this concern. Some communities use walking school buses as a way to have an adult presence on the street.

The promotion of safe walking and biking to school addresses the risks described here. When there are more adults and children walking and biking on the road, the community becomes accustomed to their presence.

Published 9-24-2010