Walking to School

By Amy Miller

My family lives in a village where we can walk to the post office, grocery store and pizza parlor. Most important of all, our children can walk to school, at least until sixth grade.

Nationally, only about 15 percent of children walk to school. This is a serious drop from when I was a kid. In 1969 about half of children 5 to 15 walked to school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of parents said their children don’t walk because it was too far. A third said the danger of traffic scared them. But the truth is only 31 percent of children who live within a mile of school walked or biked compared to closer to 90 percent in 1969.

A national Safe Routes to School program tries to address these barriers. It encourages schools, for instance, to arrange for children to meet within a mile of school and travel in “walking school buses.” It suggests crossing signals, better enforcement of speed limits and teaching children pedestrian skills.

One program in California saw a 64 percent increase in walking the second year of their program. Many towns, including mine, have instituted Walk to School Days. South Berwick has one such day a month and the streets are filled with children, teachers and parents using the sidewalks and getting exercise.

When my daughter began walking to fourth grade in 2007, she and her friends were often nearly alone on the road. Today, her younger brother passes other kids walking, boys on bikes and several other parents making the mile trek from downtown.

EPA, which has joined the effort to get kids out of vehicles, notes that the location of a school plays a large role in how children travel. When neighborhood schools are closed, children are more likely to drive, resulting in more air pollution and less exercise.

My family often strays from our goal. When it rains really hard, when we are driving anyway, when we are rushed to get to karate or dance, we drive. But most of the time we walk. And on these trips we get to kick snowballs down the street, greet neighbors along the way and practice times tables. And it is on these days that I feel there is no higher priority for 20 minutes of our day.

About the author:  Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

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