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In praise of walking to school for #NationalWalktoSchoolDay

The world that existed when I was in grammar school was divided into two kinds of kids: walkers and "busers."

Being a "buser" looked complicated. You had to get in line. You had to know which bus to get on. You had to pay attention to where you were so you knew when to get off. You had to be on time or else you might miss the bus. God only knows what happened then.

I liked being a walker, even though I was not particularly partial to - or good at - walking. My older brother and next-door neighbor and I made the three tenths of a mile trip to school together every morning and afternoon. I didn't realize it at the time, but being a walker bestowed on me a sense of independence. I didn’t need anyone to get me to and from school, a lesson that had lifelong implications.

The world was full of walkers back then. Today? Not so much.

Today is National Walk to School Day, a day that makes people like me remember childhood, or gives others a reason to break their routine and have their kids turn pedestrian for a day. But it will mean absolutely nothing to the millions of children who will commemorate it in their parents’ cars.

In 1969, according to a much-cited study from the U.S. Department of Transportation, 41 percent of children in grades K–8 lived within a mile of their school, and of those kids, 89 percent usually got there on foot or on a bicycle. Forty years later, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, the percentage of kids living within a mile of school had dropped to 31 percent, and of those only 35 percent walked or biked.

Despite the proven health and concentration benefits of walking or biking to school, this is a trend that is unlikely to be reversed. The reasons why are no secret.

  • Neighborhood schools were the norm a couple of generations ago, but in that time, when new schools were built, they were located away from population centers.
  • Increased attention paid to child abductions made parents rethink whether sending their elementary-age children off on their own was safe. Many decided it wasn’t, choosing instead to drive them to school.
  • Newer suburban housing developments were designed with the motorist and not the pedestrian in mind, and therefore did not come with sidewalks, adding another layer of insecurity for parents who didn’t want to deal with the risk of having their children share the road shoulder with cars.

Ann Sawyer of Amherst, like me, was one of the 89 percenters in the 1970s. She walked daily for eight years from her house near Harlem Road and Cleveland Drive in Cheektowaga to St. Aloysius Gonzaga School.

“That was a really long walk for a 6-year-old kid,” she said.

After a Cleveland Hill budget defeat in her teen years reduced busing, Sawyer briefly had to walk to Sacred Heart on Main Street, which was nearly three miles from her house. (It wasn’t really uphill in both directions, but some days it must have felt that way.)

When she and her husband were buying a home, they looked at a neighborhood in Snyder not far from Sacred Heart and were pleased that it had something in common with the neighborhood of her childhood: sidewalks.

“Even though my twins were 2 years old and my daughter was only 6 months old at the time we purchased our house, I did think ahead about them having to navigate to school, and I liked the fact that Snyder is a very walkable community,” she said.

The Sawyer kids were "busers" when they were in elementary school, but became walkers when they started middle school. All three are now Amherst High School students, and they make the two-block walk to and from the building on Main Street every day.

Most children will never know that feeling, that freedom. And that's too bad.

My kids are in that category; their schools were too far away with too few sidewalks along the way. We drove them or they took the bus.

Like a lot of parents, I’m glad I knew they were always safe. But I regret that they missed out on the independence.


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