The decline in children’s physical activity is blamed on an array of factors, from the design of road systems to accommodate automobiles instead of pedestrians and bicyclists, to poor parenting.
Whatever the reasons, the results are alarming: approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents are obese. Supporters of more walking- and bike-friendly neighborhoods partly blame rising the obesity rates on the drop in the number of kids who walk or pedal to school.
In the greater Washington area, determined parents and advocacy groups are trying to get kids moving again. The solutions, however, are not as easy as simply telling kids to get up and go. There are concerns about the safety of streets, including missing sidewalks, heavy traffic congestion around schools during morning rush hour and, in some places, crime.
It’s also a matter of convenience and time. Some kids live too far from their schools to make walking or bicycling practical; some parents find it more convenient to drop their kids off at school while driving to work.
“Kids just aren’t used to it right now. They are used to getting bused or being in the car. It’s really about teaching kids. That’s the education part,” says Christine Green, the regional policy manager at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a group that encourages communities to address this issue by making streets safer.
“My job as the regional policy manager is to bring all the players in the community together. That’s the school system, the transportation engineers, the planners, the public health folks, and the community advocates,” Green says. “We bring everybody together under this common mission of not only kids walking and biking but entire communities being able to walk and bike for all their trips.”
Communities apply for federal Safe Routes to School grants. “You must complete a school travel plan before you do an application,” Green says. “A school travel plan requires you to look at the infrastructure around your school, it requires you to do some counts about the numbers of kids walking and biking to school currently.”
The entire budget of the Safe Routes to School program covers only seven percent of all schools in the United States, according to Barbara McCann, the executive director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, based in Washington.
“There’s just a tremendous need to change the way we design our roads so that the people who need to use the roads do so, and that includes kids,” says McCann, who organization largely faults road designs over the last half century for the decline in peoples’ physical activity.
“When parents are looking at going with their kids to school they have to think about is there a sidewalk, is there a safe crosswalk, is there a signal?” McCann says. “It should be a priority of the community to have safe routes to school. Sidewalks make a tremendous difference in safety. They can reduce pedestrian crashes exponentially. In many communities it hasn’t happened and hasn’t been a priority.”
In the Forest Hills neighborhood of northwest D.C., sidewalks are the focus of Robin Schepper, a mother of two young boys and leader of the Safer Routes to School program at Murch Elementary School. She has successfully fought to have sidewalks built on several streets, but some homeowners have also successfully resisted.
“There are a lot of people who really don’t want sidewalks,” says Schepper. “They have landscaped all the way to the curb even though the city owns four to five feet up. They don’t want sidewalks because they don’t want to disturb their landscaping.”
Schepper and a WAMU reporter made the 17 minute walk from her home west to Murch Elementary. On some streets there are no sidewalks on either side. She accompanies her sons, 6 and 10, on their walk to school every day.
“I was stopped by a police officer about two months ago and she said, “Hey, you got to be careful. This is not safe for your children.” And I said, “I know. I’ve been trying to get a sidewalk here for years,” Schepper says.
Missing sidewalks (and landscaping crews whose trucks make the streets even narrower) are not the biggest concern among neighborhood parents, says Schepper.
“We did a survey at Murch Elementary School when we got a ‘Safe Routes to School’ grant and we did a survey of what were parents’ biggest fears of letting their kids walk and bike to school. And the number one reason was speeding cars,” she says.
Connecticut Avenue runs north/south through Schepper’s kids’ route to school. The posted speed limit is 25 miles per hour, but motorists were seen speeding at about 45 or 50 miles per hour during her interview with WAMU.
“We have traffic coming from Maryland so Connecticut Avenue in the morning is like a speedway,” she says.
While Schepper fights for sidewalks in D.C., in Vienna, Virginia Jeff Anderson is waging a different crusade: getting kids on bicycles.
“I started here at Wolftrap Elementary by asking our principle for a bike rack one day,” says Anderson, who has three young kids with whom he bikes to school.
Once a month Anderson organizes a bike train – a caravan of bicycling students – to encourage more kids to eschew the back seats of their parents’ cars for a two-wheeler.
“I usually have between 10 and 15 kids who join me. We take the back roads and avoid the main roads,” says Anderson, who started the bike trains about 18 months ago. “There was no bike rack. We now have four. The goal is to get them to see that it is easy to do. Eventually they don’t do the bike train anymore. They just ride on their own.”
Anderson says getting more kids on bicycles or walking is not as simple as he’d like. Parents are concerned about traffic congestion, and some just want to talk with their kids in the car for those precious few minutes before the busyness of the day takes over.
“Everyone is rushed these days to get out for all kinds of reasons. People err on the side of convenience and ease versus taking 15 minutes with your child walking to school,” he says. However, there is a downside to choosing convenience, says Anderson, a member of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling.
“In the ‘60s, fifty to sixty percent of kids biked or walked to school. We didn’t have Type 2 diabetes in children. We didn’t have an obesity problem in children. And now only 13 percent of children walk or bike to school nationally. That’s the same number we see here at our school on any given day, too,” he says.
Anderson’s daughter Laurel, 9, is happy to be in the minority. “I like doing it because we are not using energy, it’s a lot of fun, and I like getting exercise,” she says. Younger brother Eric, 7, says he feels better at school after he bikes in the morning. “You can think better,” he says.
Awareness of the benefits of safe streets is not lacking in Kentlands, a community of about 5,000 residents in Montgomery County, Maryland. A model of ‘new urbanism,’ the Kentlands was designed for walking, not only driving. Sidewalks are wide and roads are narrow. Front steps meet the sidewalks.
“Narrow roads calm traffic, keep cars going more slowly, and keep the houses closer together which creates neighborliness. They also provide for wider sidewalks on each side,” says John Schlichting, the chairman of the Kentlands Community Foundation.
The children of the Kentlands were raised as walkers. Their schools, friends, and favorite hang-outs are close by.
“I always cross in the crosswalks, and there are lots crosswalks and sidewalks in the Kentlands, so it’s not like you’re walking in the middle of the street. But if I were somewhere else I might not feel as safe,” says Elena Dietz, 11. Here sister Hannah, 13, says she notices a big difference between the way she lives compared to friends from other towns that rely on their parents for transportation.
“They have to get parent permission for everywhere they go, everything they do. Whereas I can be like, mom, I going to walk three doors down and go to my neighbor’s house,” Hannah says.
Another child of the Kentlands, Sebastian Zeineddin, 8, says he is lucky to live there. “I like walking to school because I also have friends that I can walk and talk with, too.”
Sebastian’s observation raises an issue any parent can relate to: no responsible adult would let their child walk to school, especially alone, if they believe the roads aren’t safe. Thirty percent of traffic deaths for children up 14 years old happen when they are walking or bicycling.
In the Kentlands no child has to walk by himself. The close proximity of neighbors produces camaraderie among the kids. Thus, advocates like Barbara McCann and Christine Green believe that the effort to get more kids walking and bicycling cannot succeed without major changes to the design of their neighborhoods and towns.
At the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, engineer Fred Lees is in charge of improving the ‘walkability’ of roads. The head of the traffic engineering section, Lees is working on creating walking routes to the county’s schools.
“One of the biggest problems we have with schools in general is parents dropping off kids, buses, and kids walking, all converging in the same fifteen minute period,” says Lees. In fact, 20 to 30 percent of morning traffic is children being driven to school, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.
“We’ve found that along some of the designated walking routes some of the crosswalks are not there or are in bad condition, so we will certainly go out there and mark those and remark ones that are faded,” says Lees.
Getting half of all American school kids walking or biking to school again may seem like an improbable task, but advocates say it is possible through a multi-pronged effort to improve the design of communities, educate parents and children, and encourage physical activity.
In D.C. Robin Schepper is determined to make a difference one street at a time.
“The proudest moment I have in doing this type of work is that when [my kids] point to sidewalks, they say that’s mommy’s sidewalk,” she says.