Our sons usually take the bus to and from school, but last week my wife and I picked our older son up at the end of the school day for an event. Ellen said that we should get there about ten, fifteen minutes early to get a good place in line; otherwise we'd have to wait a long time to get out. I thought that was odd, but we did, and we were the third car in line. Pretty soon there were several dozen cars lined up behind us, clogging up the parking lot. I said to Ellen, "I don't remember so many parents picking up their kids like this when I was in elementary school. Everybody walked or took the bus."
Well, a recent New York Times article describes how kids no longer walk to school because parents usually drive them. A major factor: fear of abduction, heightened again by the Jaycee Dugard case. As a result, parents sit with their kids in cars at the end of driveways before the bus comes, and parents drive kids to school two blocks away. But those fears seem to be vastly disproportionate. The article reports that about 115 children are kidnapped by strangers each year, while 250,000 kids are injured in car accidents. Which is the greater danger - walking or driving?
Also: In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did. During the same period, children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose from 20 percent to 55 percent. More than half! No wonder my kids' buses seem so empty.
The result? Kids don't get as much exercise, there's more traffic clogging school areas (with the increased risk of car accidents) and we use way more gas than we used to. Protective parents don't let kids play unsupervised, even in their own neighborhoods. And kids lose out on certain aspects of unstructured, exploratory play.
It seems to have become a cultural expectation that kids should not walk alone. The article mentions a 10-year-old who was walking to soccer practice (about a mile), and people who saw him walking alone called 911. A policeman picked him up, drove him the rest of the way, and reprimanded the mother.
I think this article highlights how much commuter culture has shaped our modern practices. The geography of our neighborhoods, especially in the suburbs, is designed for cars, so our default setting is to drive everywhere. We don't even think of walking anymore. Now it has become a countercultural act to let our kids to walk to school.