The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Reducing school traffic would help rush hour congestion

Here's a simple suggestion to improve the morning rush hour: Get more kids to walk, bike, and bus to school.

Photo by The Bywaters on Flickr.

It is estimated that 20% of morning traffic congestion in Fairfax County is related to parents driving kids to school, and despite the availability of alternates, drop-off lines are only getting longer.

No one wins under the current system. Taxpayers pay too much for kids to get to school, parents lose valuable time serving as chauffeurs, and kids forfeit an opportunity to learn independence and healthy habits. And, of course, everyone suffers when traffic swells.

For the time being, there are almost no programs or policies in Fairfax that promote an alternative to the curbside drop-off. In fact, at several schools, principals prohibit students from walking or biking to school, even though Fairfax County has endorsed these options.

Within the county, elementary school students living more than a mile from school, and middle and high school students living more than a mile and a half, are entitled to bus service. Those within close proximity of their schools have the option to walk routes deemed safe by the county, with buses provided if the journey is deemed hazardous, no matter the distance.

And yet, despite these accommodations, according to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), nearly 60% of designated walkers and just over 30% of designated bus riders frequently use the kiss & ride method instead.

As a result, taxpayers pay multiple times for students to get to school. They pay teachers and administrators to staff large-scale kiss & ride operations, while at the same time they pay for the empty bus seats that students and their parents choose to forgo. Meanwhile, they also pick up the indirect costs associated with increased traffic congestion and on-road incidents.

There are many reasons why walking and biking to school benefit children and the community. Children develop independence at an earlier age, they get the health benefits of exercise, they are more alert in school, and they develop a lifelong healthy habit of walking or biking.

While there will always be many parents who need to drive children to school for a wide variety of reasons, FCPS can encourage more students to walk and bike by addressing the safety and logistical concerns of parents that lead so many of them to drive their children to school.

MWCOG is working to address this issue by experimenting with a new system called School Pool that will help parents find other parents to form bike trains, walking school buses, and regular car pools.

Likewise, FABB, Fairfax's bicycle advocacy group, and others are working with FCPS to develop a more streamlined process for applying for Safe Routes to School funds. FABB is also trying to communicate to parents the costs of driving kids to school, as well as the benefits of walking and biking.

If you want to learn more about Safe Routes to School activities in Fairfax visit the Fairfax Safe Routes to School Facebook page.

Bruce Wright is chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling (FABB) and he serves on the WABA board. He has been a daily bike commuter since moving to Reston in 1979. He worked for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1979 to 1999 doing geographic research. He served as chairman of the Fairfax County Trails Committee and was a member of the Tysons Land Use Task Force. He currently lives in Reston and works part time at bikes@vienna. 


Add a comment »

Hmm, funny, Wednesday is International Walk to School day. Do you know if Fairfax County is doing anything for it?

by Tim Krepp on Oct 3, 2011 11:43 am • linkreport

Isn't not driving your kid to school every day pretty much child abuse?

Some schools don't even have bike racks any more.

by Crickey7 on Oct 3, 2011 11:54 am • linkreport

Do you have a cite on the morning traffic figure?

It strikes me that blaming that on dropping kids off may be an overstatement. Two income households in Fairfax means that those cars are going to be on the road anyway, and it just a marginal increase (10-15 minute) of driving time to drop kids off.

"They pay teachers and administrators to staff large-scale kiss & ride operations, while at the same time they pay for the empty bus seats that students and their parents choose to forgo"

I must be old. Kiss & Ride operations? Didn't you just get dropped off before?

Hmm. Empty bus seats. Cleary, the answer would be to only charge parents who kids ride on the bus....

by charlie on Oct 3, 2011 11:57 am • linkreport

I used to pick kids up from various schools to take them to the community center and at some of the schools it wasn't unsual to have to sit on the bus for 30-45 minutes for a trip that was only a couple of miles.

by Canaan on Oct 3, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

I agree that more kids should walk to school but I disagree with blaming the county. This is 100% on over protective parents and I don't think the county should get involved. If they do take steps to encourage more walking some incident will happen (it will happen regardless) but then the parents will blame the county for pushing them to have there kids walk. If parents want to waste there time chauffeuring there spoiled kids around it's a shame but I think social pressure is the answer rather than trying to change school or county policy. If you know one of these parents share your views with them. Maybe they'll see the light.

by Doug on Oct 3, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

Good ideas, but a bigger impact idea would be for the governments around here to do more to encourage companies to allow their employees to telecommute most of the week ... only coming in to the office for the occasional meeting. The technology is already there to allow this to happen, it's just that old ideas of 'they won't be working if I'm not looking over their shoulders' are long is dying. It's going to happen anyways, but a little push in the way of tax incentives (as I hear Va. is doing) would go a long way in speeding things us. And the savings from doing away with the 'peak capacity' times for our roads would more than pay to incentivise management to speed the road to telecommuting along. And of course, getting the feds to do it (who are actually in the best position to do it) would be a great way of 'showing the way' for others.

Ironically, the one 'traffic' (be it car traffic or bus traffic or foot or bike traffic) that probably won't be being eliminated is school kid traffic. The 'in person' socialization skilss are an essential part of any child's education.

by Lance on Oct 3, 2011 12:20 pm • linkreport

And I have to disagree with the empty bus seats comment. It's been a few (6 years) since I was a Fairfax County student, but there came a point in time when I begged my parents to drive me to school because there were literally no seats on the bus.

This might not be the case with buses serving areas that should be walking areas, but you don't know that Fairfax is paying for buses with empty seats.

by SB on Oct 3, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

I think the telling statistic in this article is that 30% of those who could ride the bus get driven instead. I'm guessing there is almost nothing you can do to get these kids taking any other method than car to school.

by Steven Yates on Oct 3, 2011 12:33 pm • linkreport

Where does the "20% of morning traffic congestion in Fairfax County is related to parents driving kids to school" statistic come from? Is that the percentage of cars on the road at any given time during the morning rush whose sole purpose is to drop a kid off at school? That rate seems really high to me, but I don't live in Fairfax (I grew up in a rural area where walking to school was not an option). If the rate really is that high, I would be concerned that there is something is wrong with the school bus system.

by grumpy on Oct 3, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport


I think you are probably right that encouraging telecommuting is one of the easiest and biggest things we can do to mitigate rush hour traffic. Though for me personally I actually like the social aspect of the office so I doubt I would telecommute (I also live four blocks from work, so it wouldn't be a huge time saver anyway).

by Steven Yates on Oct 3, 2011 12:44 pm • linkreport

I would have to agree with Yates, the whole point of socializing a kid is to be able to function well in society. Are we going to hide out in our computerized homes only becasue we can? Only a large investment in public transportation in coordination with radically changing the zoning laws and will truly bring down congestion. When it comes to government agencies, not enough of them are reading from the same sheet of music.

by Thayer-D on Oct 3, 2011 12:52 pm • linkreport

My brother lived about a mile-and-a-half from his elementary school in Montgomery County, and when he didn't take the school bus that stopped on our street, my parents drove him. One day, I offered to bike with him to school, but there weren't bike racks outside. His teacher said he could bring his bike inside the classroom, but the custodians refused, saying it would mess up the floors.

It's a shame we can't let kids walk to school/we live in places where it actually is unsafe for a kid to walk to school (because of big roads, traffic, etc.) But even in West Philadelphia, where I live now, I have a neighbor who drives his daughter two blocks (!!!) to school before continuing on to work (mind you, we live in a dense nabe with several trolley and bus lines and a subway).

by dan reed! on Oct 3, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

This is my first time posting.

As a Fairfax County parent, the situation is more complex than just encouraging options, especially if you factor in working parents and the ridiculously late times of the elementary school starts.

Our elementary school has bell at 9:00 and no one may arrive before about 8:50. I was able to rearrange my work schedule to stay with my son at the bus stop (arriving around 8:42) then zoom off to the office, though I don't get home until 7 ish because of that.

If we were walkers, we'd be in that kiss and ride line, because I can't be walking back to the house and starting my trip to a DC office at 9:05 ish. And, if he was in the before care, we'd still be driving to the school to drop him off.

My son also gets picked up at the kiss and ride by his aftercare. (On site aftercare is difficult to get into and is closed on all school holidays and snow days, unlike the off-site options.)

These are the kinds of logistics that many parents are juggling.

It's true that the kiss and ride line at my school is insanely long though. I wonder if an express lane for carpoolers and buses would be possible or incentivize people who could carpool to do so.

by Julie on Oct 3, 2011 1:16 pm • linkreport


None of what you said explains why your kid doesn't just walk down to the bus stop and put himself on the bus every morning.

Also, the image of you standing at the school bus stop with your child is creepy and weird. Did your parents do that with you?

by Doug on Oct 3, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport


There's nothing creepy or weird about the parents waiting at a bus stop. Drive around town a little, there's tons of parents out at the bus stop each morning. I think some of them look at it as a social opportunity to get to know their neighbors a little more. Also, these are elementary school kids who are still really young, we're not talking high school (where it would be weird to have your parents waiting).

by james on Oct 3, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

I live between a primary school, a middle school and a high school in South Fairfax, and can't believe the amount of school buses that we have crossing through our neighborhood. The neighborhood consists of massive superblocks, so there is relatively through-traffic. All of which makes me wonder why kids can't just walk or bike to school. The roads are wide enough to paint on some bike lanes.

When people talk about smaller government, getting rid of school buses is a massive opportunity that seems to be overlooked for unfounded safety concerns.

by Jasper on Oct 3, 2011 1:46 pm • linkreport

@ Doug:Also, the image of you standing at the school bus stop with your child is creepy and weird.

Some schools require parental presence when kids get on and off the bus. Not sure if this applies to Fairfax or any of the other regional school districts.

by Jasper on Oct 3, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

@Doug: None of what you said explains why your kid doesn't just walk down to the bus stop and put himself on the bus every morning.

I have a habit of assuming that when people make comments starting "why don't you just [do whatever]", they usually don't have a good understanding of what [doing whatever] actually involves.

by Miriam on Oct 3, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

"I think the telling statistic in this article is that 30% of those who could ride the bus get driven instead. I'm guessing there is almost nothing you can do to get these kids taking any other method than car to school"

some bus routes are circuitious, and take a lot of time if you live at the end. In Fairfax county middle school starts very early, and some parents will do anything to give their kid a little extra sleep in the morning.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 3, 2011 1:56 pm • linkreport

Over the summer, working with a few other parents and our new principal, we enrolled with the DC Safe Routes to School program. This is an elementary school on Capitol Hill that is on some busy streets, has had some near misses and certainly contributes to some of the congestion in the area.

We are still in the early days of the program but the results thus far have been very promising.

We instituted a new drop off procedure and traffic pattern, with some changes in parking rules, that has calmed down traffic, reduced double parking and other illegal maneuvers.

During the first week of school we noticed that the bike racks were overloaded. Within a few weeks we had more racks installed and they are basically filled too.

Next in the process is to work with the broader school population to figure out how to get more kids walking or biking to school where possible. Certainly it is not possible for some, but there are ways to make it safer and more doable for families. The benefits are clear for the school, the surrounding commuters, our environment and our kids.

Folks should check out this program for their own school if they are in DC. I am sure other jurisdictions have it too.

by Ivan Frishberg on Oct 3, 2011 2:12 pm • linkreport

@Ivan Frishberg: What school? Do you have any links?

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

Ok, to defend myself, I'll point out that I only went to the bus stop in kindergarten and first grade, when he was the youngest kid by far, but I still don't feel right leaving the neighborhood before the bus picks him up. I'm not alone in that - moments after the bus drives by, the neighborhood comes to life as parents head out to work.

by Julie on Oct 3, 2011 2:15 pm • linkreport

some bus routes are circuitious, and take a lot of time if you live at the end

Yeah, my bus route arrived at my stop a full hour before the start of school, and arrived at school a half hour before starting time. Oh, and the stop was a mile away. Uphill both ways. (Just kidding, it was only uphill on the way home). Luckily, for much of my school years until I could drive, my older sisters (or their boyfriends) could drive me.

by kinverson on Oct 3, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

Not mentioned in the article is the 40 years of zoning that has forced all new schools onto minimum acres on the outskirts of communities making walking and biking more difficult (for distance and safety reasons) for ever greater proportions of the student and faculty populations. This has occurred in the locating of "replacement" schools from the heart of a community where they were accessible by walking/biking to the edges of communities where minimum acreage (and parking) standards can be met.

In 1969 ~48% of students walked to school and 12% went by auto. By 2008 there was a near reversal with ~45% going by auto and 12% walking. Meanwhile since 1980 the childhood obesity rate has tripled in kids 6-11.

This is one of the unintended consequences of the auto centric transportation and land-use policies of the last 60 years.

by Tina on Oct 3, 2011 2:59 pm • linkreport

Wow. Parents are really overprotective these days. My mother waited with me at the bus stop once, on my first day of kindergarden. After that, I was on my own.

by Rob on Oct 3, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

@ Tina:In 1969 ~48% of students walked to school and 12% went by auto. By 2008 there was a near reversal with ~45% going by auto and 12% walking. Meanwhile since 1980 the childhood obesity rate has tripled in kids 6-11.

Other countries see this causality. For instance, the Netherlands. As less kids bike, and more get brought to school, obesity goes up.

by Jasper on Oct 3, 2011 3:36 pm • linkreport

Tina hits it. Thanks.

by spookiness on Oct 3, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

Tina hits part of it, but it's not the whole story. For example, there is one elementary school in southern Fairfax County that is smack-dab in the middle of a residential area. But, as was pointed out to me by a parent last year, it is "legally impossible" to walk to school from a block-and-a-half away because of the lack of sidewalks and curb cuts.

by Froggie on Oct 3, 2011 6:43 pm • linkreport

@goldfish, here is the link to the program: Safe Routes to School

Brent Elementary is the school

by Ivan Frishberg on Oct 3, 2011 8:43 pm • linkreport

@Froggie- I think a transportation policy/zoning policy that results in a school that can't be accessed from <1/4 mile away because by walking b/c of the lack of sidewalks and curb cuts is a perfect illustration of the auto-centric policies that have resulted in such an absurd built environment. I guess thats what you were pointing out. That even when the school is nearby auto-centric policies in the tradition of the last 40 yrs have contributed to the decrease of kids walking to school.

by Tina on Oct 3, 2011 9:08 pm • linkreport

@ Froggie: But, as was pointed out to me by a parent last year, it is "legally impossible" to walk to school from a block-and-a-half away because of the lack of sidewalks and curb cuts.

I think that's the one I live "next" too. Funny thing is also that it pretty much backs up to a wonderful little county park: South Run Stream Valley Park.

Interestingly, South Run Stream Valley Park is connected to Lake Mercer, Recreation Lake Park, South Run Rec Center and Burke Lake to the west, and via Rushing Creek Dr/South Run Rd/Pohick Run - about 5 minutes walking - to the Cross County Trail that runs from Occoquan to Great Falls. Now I think about it, both the middle school and high school are on the CCT as well.

But I reckon no parent has ever dared to take the risk of sending their kids to school via a park. The horror of their kids possible running into a fox, deer, heron or (gasp) turtle! And naturally (pun intended) having kids cross stepping stones across the wild rushing South Run is a risk nobody can expose their children to.

by Jasper on Oct 3, 2011 10:03 pm • linkreport

I think every city, town, and county should try to get as much as they can from the Safe Routes to School program. As several commenters have pointed it out, it serves multiple purposes - makes it safer to walk and bike to school for children, therefore making it safer to walk and bike for everyone, reduces traffic, increases exercise, reduces emissions, and improves quality of life. The nice thing about Safe Routes is that each community gets to choose its own projects, which means that it can be targeted to meet local needs.

by Shannon on Oct 3, 2011 11:01 pm • linkreport

@Ivan Frishberg, thanks for the links.

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2011 11:28 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: the school I was referring to is in Rose Hill, but it wouldn't surprise me if other schools have the same issue.

by Froggie on Oct 4, 2011 7:18 am • linkreport

Tomorrow is International Walk to School Day and Fairfax County Public Schools will be endorsing it for the first time, thanks to efforts by Bruce and other citizens interested in promoting active transportation. Tomorrow, kids are being encouraged to walk or bike to school or at least to walk (not be driven) to their bus stops.

by J J Madden on Oct 4, 2011 7:21 am • linkreport

@charlie and @grumpy - The estimate that 20% of morning traffic congestion is related to parents driving kids to school is from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership which states that "As much as 20 to 30% of morning traffic can be generated by parents driving their children to schools" ( They cite the study "U.S. school travel, 2009 an assessment of trends" by McDonald, et al ( which includes this statement: "During the morning peak period, school travel accounted for 5%-7% of vehicle miles traveled in 2009 and 10%-14% of all private vehicles on the road." Not sure how the SRTS folks came up with the 20-30% figure.

by Bruce Wright on Oct 4, 2011 9:54 am • linkreport

@ Bruce Wright:"During the morning peak period, school travel accounted for 5%-7% of vehicle miles traveled in 2009 and 10%-14% of all private vehicles on the road." Not sure how the SRTS folks came up with the 20-30% figure.

By zooming in on the map close to schools. If 5-7% of all traffic is school related, I am not surprised that near a school that goes up to 20-30%.

Just a guess.

by Jasper on Oct 4, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

Amazing discussion, this is a topic that hits many nerves. I wanted to throw in two cents, recent reports from Robert Woods Johnson Foundation shows even a brief 10 minute walk will provide a basis for greater learning throughout the day. They found that those kids who biked or walked to school absorbed more of the lessons taught. So if driving is the only option, park a few blocks away, engage in remote drop-off and let kids stretch, move and prepare their minds to learn.

by Julie on Oct 4, 2011 11:55 am • linkreport

@Julie- remote drop-off; That's a great idea. However as Froggie and Jasper pointed out, at some schools you can't walk even if you're <1/4 mile from the school b/c there are no sidewalks and/or there are too many curb-cuts (driveways) making walking, even from a short distance, impossible.

The solution is retro-fitting the built-environment around those schools, indeed throughout the community, with designs that are not strictly auto-centric. Making an investment in the infrastructure will save the community thousands in healthcare costs in the future.

There is evidence that access to walkable routes increases by ~35% the proportion of people in the community who achievce the minimum threshold of physical activity/week to significantly improve long-term health outcomes.

by Tina on Oct 4, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

@ Bruce Wright: Not sure how they came up with the 20% figure? They either made it up or naively misread the figures. To claim that 20% of the morning traffic on Fairfax County roads is related to parents driving their kids to school is simply preposterous. Have you ever been on I-66? How many of those folks are taking their kids to school?

Perhaps they mean 20% of traffic on roads near a school, but elsewhere, the figure is delusional and craptastic. And the "attribution" is confused, to put it mildly.

Oh, and those of you who seem to be making judgements about whether parents should allow even five year olds to stand alone at bus stops or have children walk alone through parks, you obviously don't have kids. Parents see horror stories (true ones) on TV about kids being killed on the way to or from school, or about creeps approaching kids (or worse) on their way to or from school (especially in wooded areas) and take action they deem appropriate. They would never, ever, ever forgive themselves if anything happened to their child. And odds don't matter. If there's any chance at all, they will opt to overprotect their kids. Don't judge.

I walked to school every day from kindergarten through high school. 13 years, and never once did I take a car or even a bus. It was great exercise, and I've been in great health most of my life. (In fact, my exercise regimen helped mask a hereditary condition that is usually uncovered by high blood pressure at an early age. Mine didn't show up until after 50.) Walking is the best exercise there is.

But the world is different now, and there are a whole lot more dangers out there. For anyone to pass judgement on a parent who seeks to protect a child is deeply offensive to me.

It is certainly best for kids to walk to school, when it is safe to do so. And that should always mean kids walking in groups. And, with smaller kids, maybe a parent or retired grandparent should walk along. There is always a risk, and the smaller to child, the greater the risk.

by Mike on Oct 4, 2011 1:48 pm • linkreport

Parents see horror stories (true ones) on TV about kids being killed on the way to or from school...

See this one: Crysta Spencer, 6-year old killed crossing 6th Street NE, in front of her house, by a hit and run SUV on 23 April 2007. The case is unsolved.

by goldfish on Oct 4, 2011 2:02 pm • linkreport

broken link above should be

by goldfish on Oct 4, 2011 2:04 pm • linkreport

Well, Mike, I think your call not to judge parents has a lot of merit. Being a parent is a difficult job without a lot of comments, both helpful and uninformed, from the peanut gallery.

I would say that it depends on what we mean by dangers when we say "there are a whole lot more dangers out there." Crime is down dramatically from my childhood. I just think we hear about the horrific ones more easily as the nature of media has changed. Back when I was a child, a crime would have to make national news and my parents would have to happen to catch the evening news that night. With the advent of 24 hour news channels, and more importantly, the internet, we have instant and continuous access to all manner of horrible things. That doesn't mean there are more of them or that they are more likely.

The sad truth is that most violence to children is done to them by someone they know.

One thing I do find more dangerous is being a pedestrian. Larger SUVs are more common, and they have quite a few blind spots a smaller car may not have (which explains the dents on mine!). Plus, the ubiquitous use of cell phones mean that drivers are less likely to be aware of my kids.

So, in short, I'm relatively unconcerned by random creeps (not totally unconcerned mind you), but daily terrified that my kid is going to be hit by a commuter zipping down 17th ST SE.

by Tim Krepp on Oct 4, 2011 2:08 pm • linkreport


Thanks for the comments. I agree parents have their hands full.

Among the additional dangers out there are gangs (a kid in the Maryland suburbs was killed by gang members this year on his way home for school), and there have been a number of sex crimes played up in the media in which undocumented aliens have been charges. This type of stuff makes the headlines, and most often takes place in the 'burbs.

Parents see this stuff and the immediate instinct is to worry about their own child. It's human nature. Don't judge.

by Mike on Oct 4, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

We'll have to judge parents when all these fat kids grow up to be fat adults and we all have to pay for it.

We gotta judge the imbeciles that made it policy to ensure there is not ability for kids to walk to school. Parents don't get free passes.

We're human. We judge.

by greent on Oct 4, 2011 2:47 pm • linkreport

For those saying that kids walking or biking to school presents a risk that parents don't want to undertake, I would be interested to see statistics on the number of injuries that occur while walking/biking versus those that occur while being driven to school. Car accidents are more common than kidnappings but get less media coverage so we tend to be more concerned about the latter. I understand the impulse, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't work to change the perception.

Also, there's safety in numbers, so the more kids that walk or bike to school, the safer it will be.

by Laura on Oct 4, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

@Julie - CDC etimates "1/5 kids aged 5-9 killed in traffic crashes was a pedestrian." And "Pedestrians are 1.5 times more likely than passenger vehicle occupants to be killed in a car crash on each trip."

But also "higher vehicle speeds increase both the likelihood of a pedestrian being struck by a car and the severity of injury." And "Pedestrian risk may be higher in areas characterized by urban sprawl."

for more info see (especially the results of the survey question, "Why doesn't your child walk to school?":

by Tina on Oct 4, 2011 3:36 pm • linkreport

^ I meant @Laura. Sorry.

by Tina on Oct 4, 2011 3:37 pm • linkreport

I live in a neighborhood that was built in the 1940's. The neighborhood elementary school was built in 1951. Although I-66 was built later and is nearby (but with no access points), for the most part all the neighborhood streets are pretty much the same as they've been for 60 years.

Yet I still see a long line of cars dropping off every day. I truly doubt that was the case 30-40 years ago. There is no difference between now and then (except now there is less crime and the neighborhood is more affluent). There is a crossing guard at the one somewhat busy street (only busy because of all the parents dropping off their kids).

So we can't blame zoning or changes in infrastructure; it's exactly the same as it was. Same houses, same streets, same school. . .and even more kids (the school is overcrowded).

So I actually don't think the "Safe Routes to School" program will make much difference. Our neighborhood is already as safe as one could possibly imagine, but evidently it's still not safe enough for a large percentage of parents.

I believe the underlying problem is that people do not know their neighbors anymore. I'm guilty, too. Of the dozen or so houses on my street, I only actually know fewer than half of the people in them. Strangers are "scary," and so people think of all those "strangers" who live around them as scary. Hence they are not comfortable allowing their children out alone in their own neighborhoods. Forty years ago everyone knew all their neighbors a lot more and thereby felt more comfortable having their kids roam around.

by Steve O on Oct 4, 2011 3:46 pm • linkreport

@Steve O: ...and the neighborhood is more affluent...

That is the most important difference: people have more money nowadays. Families now have 2-3 cars and can afford the gas to drop their kids at school. Back in 1951 most people had far less -- most only had one car -- and kids had to walk to school. Elementary schools were built to serve the neighborhood because they had to.

by goldfish on Oct 4, 2011 4:32 pm • linkreport

@Steve O -I don't doubt that people are less connected to neighbors and there is heightened fear from strngers. However a neighborhood built 40 years ago fits into the timing of the cohort of auto-centric built-environments we're talking about. Maybe 40 years ago the people who lived there were early adopters of the trend to drive kids to school instead of kids walking.

You have not mentioned if there is a connected street grid, mixed use zoning, sidewalks, adequate distances between crossings, safety from turning vehicles upon crossing, adequate crossing times at lights, and avg. auto speeds <=30mph (in actuality not by sign postings). All of these features began to be left out of neighborhoods built from about 1960 on.

by Tina on Oct 4, 2011 4:41 pm • linkreport

*..a neighborhood built in the '40s (not 40 years ago)

by Tina on Oct 4, 2011 4:54 pm • linkreport

One of the big things that is overlooked is the fact that in 1960 there were just simply more children around, period. The average family with children had 3.7 children or something, now it's around 1.9.

So kids played outside because there were more kids to play outside with. Kids walked to school because there were tons of other kids of all ages walking to school too. Etc etc. It's not just the changed built environment - kids don't walk to school even in places where they used to.

by MLD on Oct 4, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport

Re: concerns about "stranger danger" (, Safe Routes to School programs can address those concerns. Parents can form walking school buses or bike trains in which several kids travel with one or two parents. Parents can alternate leading the kids. Through SRTS kids can learn about the health benefits of walking and biking. They can learn the rules of the road and bike safety skills. In Fairfax the bike curriculum is not being taught and SRTS funds can be used to implement safety classes.

BTW, WABA has been doing a great job in this area of supporting SRTS activities through the work of Gina Arlotto, their Safe Routes to School Network Coordinator. She's part of a group in Fairfax trying to change the mindset of school officials and parents. The group also includes Julie Childers of Trails for Youth who runs one of the only active SRTS programs in the county at Lynbrook Elementary School. Also included are folks from Vienna area schools who are getting more involved with SRTS in recent years.

by Bruce Wright on Oct 4, 2011 4:59 pm • linkreport

@Tina - Thanks!

by Laura on Oct 4, 2011 5:02 pm • linkreport

look-the obesity epidemic is not caused by a mass genetic shift in the entire population. We know there is a strong influence on behavior from the environment. That includes the built environment, the food environment and the social environment. We have piles of evidence of changed built-environments leading to changed behavior. Dismissing the built-environment as a contributor to the decrease in walking is denying evidence. If kids aren't walking in places where they used to then ask yourself what else has changed. Has average auto speed and volume increased? What else has changed?

by Tina on Oct 4, 2011 5:06 pm • linkreport

@ Tina:Dismissing the built-environment as a contributor to the decrease in walking is denying evidence.

That happens all the time. Today's Nobel Laureate for Chemistry was asked to leave NIST because they did not believe his results. In fact, he had a very hard time getting his results published. And he got scolded by a double Nobel Laureate. Today, he gets to raise his finger to all those people. I'm assuming it's not his thumb.

by Jasper on Oct 5, 2011 10:12 am • linkreport

All of those things are exactly as they were 60 years ago when the school was built. Not mixed used, though. It's a residential neighborhood on 6000 square foot lots. Every street has sidewalks on both sides. There are hundreds of homes within a 10-minute walk on a well-maintained sidewalk in a crime-free neighborhood. There is virtually no traffic. I walk around my neighborhood, and the only cars on the side streets are the cars of the people who live there. And they tend to drive safely. The one slightly busier spot has a crossing guard.

It is certainly the case that households have fewer children, but the school has more kids than it used to (there are 1/2 dozen trailers on the side).

So the built environment has essentially been left constant, and I suspect the level of traffic is about the same (almost zero) which means it's a different variable that has decreased the percentage of walkers. Among those are:
- more affluence & more cars per household
- more 2-career families (although I would think this would swing the other way, reduced time would tend to encourage kids to walk rather than have their parents spend the time dropping them off)
- Fear/discomfort/overprotection
- Fewer children per household
- Disconnection from neighbors

So SRTS in my neighborhood would not need to address any infrastructure issues, but rather behavioral, attitudinal and institutional. Those, I believe are deeply entrenched and hard to change. Easier to put in a walk signal.

In fairness, there are quite a number of walkers to the school. Not everyone drops off their children. Just a lot of them.

I think the third variable looms large. Growing up I walked to school or to the bus stop without a parent going with me. Ever. I just waved goodbye, left the house and went. If a sibling was going at the same time, we'd go together (until we were older, at which point we deliberately went separately); if not, then off I'd go.

And there wasn't always a lot of other kids around, either. Sometimes I'd go in early or late for whatever reason, so there wouldn't be any others. Just my lonesome self walkin' to the school. In high school I walked about a mile, including in the dark to 6:30 AM band rehearsals and after evening theater rehearsals.

This could still be done in my neighborhood. A child of any age could walk 1/2 mile or even more without any fear whatsoever, completely alone and nothing would happen. Including in the dark. No need for some walking school bus or special arrangements. What's stopping them? Fear.

by Steve O on Oct 6, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us