Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kids don't walk because parents drive

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.


chrisblackstone said...


A great counter to driving kids to school would be parents walking with their kids to school. Not only would it probably be safer than a child walking alone, it would provide great opportunities for parents to spend time with their children.

Al Hsu said...

Yep, great comment, Chris. The article mentions the idea of the "walking school bus" where groups of kids and parents walk to school together.

chris wignall said...

Well said Al; but the comparison of abduction and traffic accident statistics fails to express the dramatic difference in consequences between the two.
As a dad I'm torn between the nostalgic freedom of my childhood and the sense of responsibility and fear for the well-being of my three kids

Micheal said...

My wife and I just had a conversation about this very topic. We live less than a mile from our children's school, but the school actually has a policy against letting children from our side of the road walk to school, because they would have to cross a busy highway. I asked about crossing guards, and the response was, "No one walks to school, so why should we have crossing guards." Talk about chicken & egg!

A walking school bus sounds like a great idea. I can even imagine some fun variations. Can you imagine a dragon walking to school on Chinese New Year? :)

Tim Liu said...

I feel like I see more parents waiting at the bus stop for their children nowadays, probably for the same reasons. While I agree with the article that it may be done out of unnecessary paranoia, I think it's touching to see a parent actually there for their kids to welcome them home.

Anonymous said...

I am a christian and have 2 kids going to school. I can relate with your post here because my kids commute to school on their own since I work in a place 300 kms. away from home. And I only get to come home every weekends. But when I am at home, I try to fetch them up at school.

My 10-year old son would prefer that I send him to and fetch him from school.