National Bike to School Day May 9

7 May

In a previous post that focused on the startlingly high adult obesity rate in Richmond (31%), one long-term approach I mentioned was to get kids on bicycles to get places, especially to and from school.  Unfortunately, at least when it comes to biking or walking to school, the statistics leave a lot of room for improvement.   The Safe Routes to School Guide cites the following numbers:

• In 1969, 48% of children 5 to 14 years of age in the U.S. walked or biked to school.  By 2009 that number had dropped to 13%.

• Since 1969 the percentage of those kids living within one mile of school who walk or bike has plummeted from 88 to 38%!

A feature story in this month’s Bicycling magazine entitled “Why Johnny Can’t Ride” highlights a startling factor behind this trend that I did not know about: some school districts actually prohibit their students from biking or walking to school!  One of the families featured in the story ended up in a protracted battle with their principal and eventually the Saratoga Springs, New York school board over allowing their son to ride to middle school.  (A recent NPR segment included an interview with the article’s author, David Darlington.  Click here to listen or read).

It doesn’t help that in many communities new schools have not been built in places conducive to walking and cycling, and often do not have sidewalks, paths, crosswalks, or bike lanes for kids to use.  Add to that many school districts’ anxiety about lawsuits and parents’ fear for their childrens’ safety, and you get the statistics above.

It might be encouraging to know that, from what I was able to gather, City of Richmond schools seem to not only allow students to bicycle or walk to school, they expect it: “The RPS home-to-school policy requires elementary school students to walk up to one mile to the school, and requires middle and high school students to walk up to one and a half miles to school.”  That’s another way of saying they won’t send a bus, though, so my guess is that a good number of parents still drive their kids to school.

Part of this is habit: we jump in the car to go pretty much anywhere nowadays.  And in some cases it really is the case that the infrastructure is not there to make walking and biking to school safe.  That’s why Safe Routes to School is such an important program.

But it’s also about parental fears — fears that are hard to criticize but which, when you look at them, include a lot of distortion.  Parents worry mainly about their child being abducted or being injured by a car, but they do not worry so much about their child being killed in their own car on the way to school.  They are also probably not focused on the long-term effects of physical inactivity, much less their child’s sense of adventure and independence, when it comes to how they get to school.  But statistically children are much, much more likely to be killed in a car crash in their own parents’ car than be kidnapped.  And given exploding childhood obesity rates and cutbacks in physical education and sports programs, walking or biking to school may really be a life-saver, particularly if it makes those modes of travel a norm that could be carried on in the future.

So why not consider allowing your child to walk or bike to school, or if you feel she or he is not old enough to go alone, find a way to accompany them?  This Wednesday, the first-ever National Bike to School Day, would be a great time to try — maybe even with some other parents and kids from your neighborhood.  You could be setting your kid up for some great things in the future.

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