Opinion: The real reason why kids stopped walking to school (VIDEO)

May 4 2023, 7:44 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Uytae Lee, who is an urban planning video journalist and the creator of About Here.

Over the past 50 years, the percentage of students walking or cycling to school plummeted from almost 50% to just over 10%. What happened?

Ever notice that school drop-offs these days increasingly resemble a traffic jam or the car pile-up to get into Coachella? Here’s why.

Statistics show that there has been an astonishing decline in the proportion of children walking or cycling to school in much of the developed world. In 1969, 48% of students walked or cycled to school in the US. In 2021, that figure was 11%. And the same trend is happening in Canada, where just 26% of children currently use active travel to get to school.

So why is this happening?

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Traffic congestion outside a school during peak hours. (Uytae Lee)

Blame it on suburban sprawl?

At first, I thought the answer was obvious: suburban sprawl, the car-dependent low-density developments of the 20th century that urbanists like myself love to blame for just about everything.

And the research does suggest that sprawl is playing a role. In the US, between 1969 and 2000, the percentage of children living within one mile of their school declined from about 35% to 20%.

But sprawl isn’t the whole story here. Today, even among children who do live within walking distance of their schools, a majority are still being driven to class — just over 50%, according to Canada’s Public Health Authority.

So what’s actually stopping kids from walking to school?

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Traffic congestion outside a school during peak hours. (Uytae Lee)

Blame it on safety?

If you ask parents, road safety and “stranger danger” are two of the most frequently cited concerns for why they won’t let their children walk to school.

These fears have some validity. A study in Montreal found that children who walked to school were 4.5 times more likely to be injured compared to those who were driven. And while kidnappings are exceedingly rare, it’s understandable that people feel more protected from this threat when they’re inside a vehicle.

However, I’m not convinced that safety concerns are the main culprit behind this decline. Statistics behind pedestrian accidents and kidnappings haven’t changed significantly over the decades.

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Child walking to school on a major traffic route. (Uytae Lee)

The key factor: declining children’s independence

What I’ve come to understand is that the decline in children walking or cycling to school is rooted in a much broader shift in societal expectations of parents and their children.

In 2011, sociologist Markella Rutherford published one of the most comprehensive studies on how parenting expectations have changed over the past century. Her main finding: parents are increasingly expected to ensure that their children are supervised at all times.

Whereas in the 1980s, parenting guides recommended children as young as age six walk to school, local corner stores, or a friend’s home by themselves; however, nowadays, it’s not uncommon for this sort of behaviour to draw intense scrutiny.

Here in Vancouver, for example, a father was investigated by the BC ​​Ministry of Children and Family Development for letting his children (ages six to 10) take transit by themselves in 2017.

The real tragedy

Unfortunately, the trend towards more children being driven to school generates more car traffic, which has the effect of making it less safe for children who walk or cycle.

This disproportionately affects the children of lower-income families. Children of lower-income parents are two to three times more likely to walk or cycle to school, according to a study from Quebec.

Couple this with the fact that lower-income neighbourhoods are also less likely to have pedestrian infrastructure and more likely to contain high-speed arterial roads, and you soon realize that this is a huge equity issue.

A report from the CBC in Toronto found that lower-income neighbourhoods had 50% more fatal or serious pedestrian collisions compared to more affluent areas.

Setting out on the right foot

With all that said, I think the silver lining to this story is that this issue is a lot more solvable than we might think.

We can start by addressing traffic safety around schools by improving certain crosswalks, roads, and intersections along school walking routes, which can help parents feel confident that kids on foot are just as safe as kids in cars.

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Kids learning how to properly ride a bike at school. (Uytae Lee)

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Kids learning how to properly ride a bike at school. (Uytae Lee)

On top of that, we need solutions that aim to change the culture around children’s commutes to school. In BC, programs such as Everyone Rides Grades 4 & 5, Get On Board!, Walking School Bus, School Streets, and Drive to 5 are great examples of how we can help create a culture of active transportation among students.

At the end of the day, students are the next generation of commuters in our cities. Encouraging them to bike or walk to school is one way to help them get started on the right foot!

Uytae LeeUytae Lee

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