Parents cite traffic and strangers as reasons they don't want their kids to walk to school. Kids can join a Walking School Bus, led by an adult volunteer, as it passes their house on its ~1 mile route.

Walking to school doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But 50 years ago, half of kids walked to school, and today, less than 15% do. Some of you are shaking your heads right now. “Kids these days are lazy!” you snort. “In my day, we walked 10 miles to school through the snow uphill both ways!”

But others are nodding. “I would never let my kid walk to school,” you say. “The traffic is crazy. She could get hit by a car. Or kidnapped!”

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a federal program administered in Missouri by MoDOT. Kirksville received both SRTS grants that we applied for this year, an infrastructure grant and a programming grant. The infrastructure grant will build a sidewalk on La Harpe connecting Franklin to Cottage Grove, about 0.7 miles. This is not Kirksville’s first SRTS experience. The city has installed and repaired other sidewalks near the Kirksville RIII campus during the past few years, primarily thanks to SRTS and other grants.

But without programming to encourage walking to school, the sidewalks might not get used. The cost of programming is a fraction of the cost of the sidewalks: This year’s SRTS infrastructure grant is $250,000 and the programming grant is $13,000.

Columbia, MO is the national leader in getting kids to walk to school. Even before SRTS existed, Columbia’s bike/ped advocacy group PedNet launched a Walking School Bus program with the Columbia school district. A Walking School Bus relies on background-checked adult volunteers, primarily parents and college students. The adult walks a designated route of about a mile, with kids joining the Walking School Bus as it passes their houses. Today, the Columbia Walking School Bus is the largest in the nation with over 500 kids participating among about a dozen elementary and middle schools. PedNet has helped at least a hundred communities all over the nation develop their Walking School Bus program, and part of our SRTS grant pays for PedNet to help us set up the Kirksville Walking School Bus.

One reason schools like for kids to walk, especially if they live within a mile where buses don’t pick up, is that it reduces congestion. This is important to Kirksville RIII’s emergency plan. If an emergency happened at the school at 7:50 am, it might take first responders a long time to respond. The Walking School Bus will include a route that travels from a designated remote drop off location to the school, so that kids who live too far to walk but don’t take the bus can still walk.

West Boulevard Elementary School in Columbia had similar problems with traffic congestion. In addition to launching a Walking School Bus program, they set up a remote drop off location for parents. Half the buses used the remote drop off as well, and the other half of the buses continued to drop kids at the front door. That meant that half the bused kids walked ¾ mile first thing in the morning. A University of Missouri professor jumped on this opportunity to study the effects of physical activity before school. Reading comprehension increased 5% in the kids who did not walk, indicating that kids were learning to read as expected. But reading comprehension increased by 27% during that same time in the kids who walked!

The world has changed in the last 50 years, and walking to school isn’t as simple as it used to be. We’ve sacrificed health for safety. The Walking School Bus lets our kids have both.

Information about PedNet’s Walking School Bus program from Ian Thomas and Robert Johnson.