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Look Both Ways: Health of children, community benefits when kids can walk or bicycle safely to school

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It’s the start of a new school year and kids across the United States are putting on their new clothes, strapping on their new book bags and setting out the door to walk the sidewalks to school. Well, not quite.

The new clothes and book bags may remain, but it’s likely that kids will be climbing into family vehicles to make the drive to school, where their parents will line their cars up with other parents, inching toward the entrance. In neighborhoods across the country, walking and biking to school seems to be a thing of the past.

Tracy McMillan
Dr. Tracy McMillan, a public health and urban planning expert, is a proponent of having children walk or bike safely to school.

In 1969, about half of all students walked or bicycled to school. Fast forward 35 years and less than 15 percent of students walk or bicycle to school, and more than half of them are driven by private vehicle. Dr. Tracy McMillan wants to understand why.

McMillan, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture who holds joint appointments with the School of Social Work and College of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has been studying children’s transportation to school for years. Among the questions at the center of her research is what factors do parents consider when deciding how their child will get to school.

“Most parents I’ve talked to admit that it’s very different today than when they were in school,” McMillan says.

As a public health and urban planning expert, McMillan is an unabashed proponent of having children walk or bike safely to school. Forget the stories of old folks who went uphill both ways in the snow, suffering their way to their school desks. When it comes to the health of our children and our communities, it’s time to get our kids out of the car, she says.

“From a physical and mental health perspective, promoting walking and bicycling for children is a good thing,” McMillan says. “There are reports of growing rates of obesity and Type II diabetes in children, paired with decreased rates of physical activity.”

A national U.S. survey conducted in 2002 found that more than 61 percent of kids aged 9-13 did not participate in organized physical activity and nearly 23 percent hadn’t engaged in any free time physical activity in the week prior to the survey.

The trip to school, then, becomes an important opportunity for physical activity.

The way kids get to school is also a community issue. Traffic congestion and air quality around schools have gotten progressively worse, and those children who do bike or walk face an increasingly inhospitable environment.

In 1969, about half of all students walked or bicycled to school. Fast forward 35 years and less than 15 percent of students walk or bicycle to school, and more than half of them are driven by private vehicle.“We want to create neighborhood environments that are supportive of more than one transportation mode,” McMillan says. “That’s where community and regional planning comes in.”

In 2005 the federal government instituted the Safe Routes to School program, aimed at encouraging and enabling more children to walk and bicycle to school by making the option more safe and appealing. The program requires that each state institute a Safe Routes to School program, working to improve the infrastructure, such as sidewalks and crossing guards, and the programming that educates parents and students on the benefits of walking and bicycling.

“It’s the first time that a significant chunk of money has been set aside exclusively for walking and bicycling,” McMillan says. “A lot of transportation money doesn’t go toward non-motorized modes.”

McMillan has worked closely with Safe Routes to School, helping create a clearinghouse of programs and information across the country. And while living in California, McMillan worked with the state’s Safe Routes to School program to evaluate the success of the program. One thing she learned is that planners need to understand the communities they’re working in.

“A one-size-fits-all program doesn’t work,” McMillan says. “A program that works in California cannot necessarily just be transplanted to Texas or a program that works in central Austin cannot necessarily be transplanted to a suburb. So by looking at the some of the differences in the population can we create more effective programs?”

That’s why it’s essential to get at the issues that are important within particular communities. A key component of that is understanding what factors parents and caregivers consider when deciding how their children will get to school. McMillan’s research has indicated that everything from the perceived safety of the neighborhood to the country of origin of the parents comes into play.

Handmade signs hang on a street post in an elementary school zone. The signs read: 'Kill Your Speed, Not Me' and 'Children Zone: Enter With Love.'
Two signs outside an elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., reflect parents’ concerns about traffic safety and the trip to school.

Upon moving to Austin in 2004, McMillan decided to work on better understanding the parameters key to a successful program in the city. She conducted a series of focus groups and interviews in two central Austin neighborhoods, gathering information from caregivers of children who lived within walking distance of their elementary schools.

“The data I had prior to this were all from a survey, and it gives you a snippet of information,” McMillan says. “But having conversations with the caregivers really allows you to dig deeper into things that influence their decision.”

At the top of the list, in surveys and face-to-face interviews and focus groups, is the issue of time. The fast pace of life we hear so much about is a factor in how parents get their kids to school as well.

Even if the walk to school would take the same amount of time as a drive, parents feel that they can control the pace in a drive more easily. A walk allows more room for variation.

“We’ve heard parents say that’s quality time I can spend with my child in the car versus the walk,” McMillan says. “A lot of parents say that we could walk, we live close enough, we even want to walk. But we get into our habits and routines, and we’d have to break them.”

Traffic safety was another constant theme for parents. Americans own more cars than ever before, an average of 1.9 vehicles per household. Kids face more cars on the road when out in their neighborhoods than their parents did when they were young.

“Parents are concerned about the speed and volume of traffic through the neighborhood,” McMillan says, “and the size of the vehicles.”

Parents also worry about the personal safety of their children. Even though the majority of caregivers that McMillan talked to said they felt Austin was a safe city, they reported differently when it came to whether or not they were comfortable with their children out alone in their neighborhoods. McMillan calls this “stranger danger,” the concern that predators might harm their children.

Most interesting for McMillan is that parents don’t perceive the way their children get to school as a choice, but rather as a necessity. In some cases this reflects households where no cars are available and children must walk or bike, but largely this reflects parental attitudes.

Where we place schools within our communities has an impact on our children's and our community's health.  Dr. Tracy McMillan“What parents conceive as their greatest constraints—generally time or inconvenience, but sometimes other things—draws them to say this is a necessity,” McMillan says. “There is no other option in this household.”

When McMillan looks to the future, she sees that change has to come from a variety of places for the trend toward driving kids to school to reverse itself. Programs such as the “walking school bus” concept, which has parents working together to walk through the neighborhood, picking up kids along the way, may gain momentum. But a comprehensive approach has to address the range of constraints parents face.

McMillan is working both locally and at a national level on the issue. She has joined other researchers to set up evaluations for walk-to-school programs across the country, and she’s turning her attention to the process of choosing where new schools in a community are placed.

“When new schools are being built, is the school board considering the long-term transportation costs of a site that may be associated with it, either for the school district or the community?” McMillan asks. “Where we place schools within our communities has an impact on our children’s and our community’s health.”

McMillan says that such decisions need to be made in conjunction with larger community plans, plans that might once again see the school as a center point to the community. Planners need to look at more than just numbers on a piece of paper when planning schools. They need to take traffic safety issues, community building issues and the opportunities for children to travel to school outside of motor vehicles into account.

“It’s about community, community support and creating a sense of community,” McMillan says. “It’s a physical activity issue. It’s a mental health issue. It’s a traffic safety issue. And it’s about children’s health.”

BY Vivé Griffith

Photos of Dr. McMillan: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 28 August 2006
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