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Reviving idea that kids can walk to school

In the 1970s, more than half the children who attended school in the United States did something that must seem almost cruel and certainly unusual to today's students: They walked to school.

You don't have to be in a school parking lot on any weekday morning to know that the practice is going the way of the family station wagon, with an estimated 75 percent of students now arriving at school by car or bus.

There are lots of reasons why this has happened -- some rational, some less so -- but a group of University at Buffalo graduate students is trying to find a way to make it possible for children to rediscover the joy of getting to and from school on their own.

The students are meeting with parents and students in the Williamsville Central School District from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Amherst Pepsi Center.

Samina Raja, an associate professor in the department of urban and regional planning at UB, is working on the semesterlong project in which students develop a professional plan for a client in the real world. The purpose of the meeting Wednesday is to gather information for a draft report to be completed by the end of November.

In this case, the client is the Town of Amherst, which is looking for ways to make the town more walkable. This portion of the project deals with Williamsville schools and how to make walking or bicycling to school safe and appealing.

Part of the reason it's not has to do with factors beyond students' control, such as how far the school is from home and whether there are any sidewalks on the way. It's worth pointing out that when more children were walking to school in the '70s, most weren't walking on a four-lane highway.

"We've basically engineered walking out of our lives," Raja said.

But even in situations where children could walk to school, many of them don't. The reason for that might come down to an issue that will be most difficult to solve: fear. Raja acknowledged that parental worry about safety is a big barrier to overcome.

"We will have to address safety head-on," she said. "But Amherst is one of the safest communities in the United States. If this should work anywhere, it should work in Amherst."

Safety is the primary reason Kyle DeRoo does not let her children walk to and from school more often. They live about a mile from Heim Middle and Heim Elementary schools in the Williamsville district, and there are sidewalks for them to use, but she worries about them crossing a busy street with no crossing guard.

She also said she worries that they could become victims of crime.

"You always hear the stories and read in the paper about someone being abducted," she said. "My one rule that the kids know is, they have to walk home with someone. And that's not always possible."

Ask any parent who drives their child to school or puts them on a bus when school is a half-mile away. The fear of "what might happen" is a common one. Raja noted that the perception is fueled by media reports of abducted children. The way to combat a fear based on perception is with factual information that could serve to reassure parents.

For example, if parents knew of a route that has a lot of activity, where children would be less likely to be isolated, it might make them feel more secure.

"The more eyes we have on streets, the better it is," Raja said. "But it's tough to have eyes on streets if people don't walk."

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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