Kids walking to school is a very old idea, and one whose time has come again—in a new way. With a responsible adult walk leader, “walking school buses tear down parental fears such as stranger danger and traffic incidents that prevent many kids from walking to school,” said PedNet Coalition Assistant Director Lawrence Simonson.
Simonson called such programs “incredibly cheap and effective” ways to “help prepare kids mentally and physically for the day.” By getting kids moving, walking school buses help compensate for reductions in physical education and recess time. Simonson has noticed that they also reduce traffic around schools, making it safer to arrive on foot or bike.
Walking school bus programs can start at the grassroots level with a dedicated champion—parent, teacher, or principal—who galvanizes others excited about the effort to start a route or two. This core group often works hard to bring other families on board, convincing them to change morning routines and, maybe, offering small incentives for participating kids. Often, champions organize and lead walks themselves; sometimes, they seek other parent or teacher volunteers to serve as walk leaders.
Simonson estimates that such a grassroots effort could run on as little as $500 per school year. He’s seen many such programs run successfully for a year or two, serving a small group or neighborhood of children whose parents used to drop them off. Many such programs, however, face difficulty as champions find themselves short on time or their children move on to older grades and new schools.
With focused and dedicated leadership, walking school bus programs can grow beyond a single school or route. Simonson has a vision of a sustainable walking school bus program that functions like a “traditional school bus minus the bus” for students who lives too close to school to qualify for bus service. PedNet and its partners explored this model in Columbia, MO. At the peak of its program, eight schools participated with more than 20 routes, including roughly 450-500 students and 200 volunteers each year.
This broad approach to walking school buses costs more than a one-school program. It requires funds to support part- or full-time staff who design routes, coordinate, recruit, and retain volunteers, interface with teachers and parents, and work to enhance and expand the program year after year. PedNet is still working to establish a sustainable funding model for this approach in Columbia.
Simonson sees great potential for partnerships with school transportation directors in the future, and a challenge in working to change the norm from managing a bus system to creating a broader transportation system that also supports healthy, active options for kids. He also sees opportunity for growth in partnership with Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) programs across the country.
“Kids could walk to school on their own” said Simonson, “but, by in large, they don’t.” Large or small, volunteer or staff-led, walking school bus programs help kids fall into a healthy habit of walking to school.
To learn more, contact Lawrence Simonson: [email protected]
Communities in Action provide examples of strategies or tools in action. Their purpose is to connect like-minded communities in their implementation efforts, giving insight into how others are tackling key challenges and what they've accomplished. To learn more about the evidence supporting this strategy's effectiveness or resources to help move towards implementation, see the What Works for Health summary of Walking school buses.
Date added: March 26, 2014