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February 03, 2004

WALKING TO SCHOOL....I've mentioned before my surprise at the number of kids who seem to be driven to school in my neighborhood despite the fact that it's a small and extremely safe place. Well, it turns out that my anecdotal observation is correct: according to the CDC, only 31% of children ages 5-15 who live within a mile of school walk or bike. That's down from 90% in 1969.

But I still can't figure out why. Why do parents ferry their kids around when there's no reason for it? What's the motivation?

I dunno, but apparently the CDC is on the case and considers this to be a serious issue. In fact, October 4-8 this year has been designated International Walk to School Week. It's amazing the things you learn with a bit of random Googling....

Posted by Kevin Drum at February 3, 2004 03:39 PM | TrackBack

Why do parents ferry their kids around when there's no reason for it?

Because media reports of abductions of kids off the street in seemingly safe areas get lots of attention, and few want to take the risk, however small, that it will be their child. In the age of Amber Alerts the perception that child abductions are a much bigger problem than ever before is probably common, even if it isn't reality.

Posted by: cmdicely at February 3, 2004 03:42 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder if it's the difference between "safety" and "perception of safety". Kids also don't play in their front yards unsupervised as much as they used to, and they are no more likely to be snatched as they were 40 years ago.

Posted by: angua at February 3, 2004 03:43 PM | PERMALINK

Do you live in one of those suburban areas where there are no sidewalks? Apologies if this is a topic that you have covered before. As a life-long urbanite I have always been bemused, when visiting my cousins in the DC suburbs, at the sheer number of obstacles that modern American suburban living throws up against doing anything on foot (except, of course, when you get to the mall).

Posted by: RandallHelms at February 3, 2004 03:46 PM | PERMALINK

Wandering homeless/mental ill folk between our home and the school. Seems pretty clear.

Posted by: filchyboy at February 3, 2004 03:46 PM | PERMALINK

Walking? Like every kid in my suburban neighborhood has a gas or electric scooter to buzz around on, from age 8 up. They don't walk more than two houses. Bikes are more rare. As an ardent cyclist I find this fact offensive in so many ways.

Posted by: Chasseur at February 3, 2004 03:53 PM | PERMALINK

My dad has a running joke. Each morning, while driving to work, he sighs and laments "all the kids with broken legs" who can't walk or ride their bikes to school.
My theory: The increase in traffic from parents shuttling their kids to school in otherwise safe areas creates inherently unsafe conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, compounding the problem.
I am certain that there is a link between skyrocketing childhood obesity rates and the failure of parents to get their kids to exercise, whether by driving them to school or by letting them watch TV, play video games, etc. instead of doing physical activities outdoors.
In re both of the above, shame on the parents, at least here in Irvine. (I won't presume to speak for other communities.) There really is no need for this detrimental "protection" of children.

Posted by: martine at February 3, 2004 03:56 PM | PERMALINK

like cmdicely says: the media.

i watched 15 minutes of MSNBC today and saw that videotape of the girl being abducted probably 20 times.

i walked miles to school, in all weather. and i kinda liked it. being driven was for kids who didn't want to stop by the woods and get high or make out with their girlfriends before school. oops. i mean study more on the way...

Posted by: ChrisL at February 3, 2004 04:01 PM | PERMALINK

Sadly, in my neighborhood, we have the dual problems of exhibitionists and gang thugs. We even had a teacher raped on campus in front of her students, so I can't say that a parent's concern about security is unwarranted.

Posted by: pessimist at February 3, 2004 04:03 PM | PERMALINK

In our safe, suburban neighborhood, a few kids do walk to school (including my own, even though a school bus stops less than a block from our house). However, so many parents drive their kids to school it is nearly impossible to drive anywhere close to one because there is so much traffic. Moreover, a lot of parents that do put their kids on the school bus still drive to the bus stop. Each bus stop usually has a half dozen or so SUVs parked next to it.
It must be a tax-cutting, war-loving, right-wing Republican thing...

Posted by: Skeptic at February 3, 2004 04:13 PM | PERMALINK

Well, let's see. If the kid is to bike to school, s/he's got to wear a helmet, knee pads, leg pads, wrist pads, reflective vest, etc. That's really not practical to bring to school every day; heck where do you even put it all? Plus, have you seen the backpacks some kids have these days? They've got like 30 pounds of books in their bookbags every day. You can't expect them to carry all of that for a mile or so. Sheesh!

Posted by: Al at February 3, 2004 04:15 PM | PERMALINK

As a kid in the late 50s -early 60s, I, like ChrisL above, walked to school, sometimes long distances--we moved a lot--and I used to ride my bike WAY long distances. Well, for a kid; over 40 miles to the county fairgrounds/swimmin' hole, there and back. I mean, I put a great many miles on those Schwinns. Wore out a few. Today, though, I wouldn't get on a bike if you paid me. Maybe it's just me, but the difference in the traffic between those days and now is astonishing. I have come to the conclusion that bicycles and cars just don't need to be sharing the same roadways anymore, especially when you consider--and this is not to let drivers off the hook--that the vast majority of cyclists have little or no regard for the rules of the road, if they even know them. I know I didn't, but the cars were a lot fewer and farther between back then. Maybe the kids today agree.

Posted by: Goober at February 3, 2004 04:21 PM | PERMALINK

Guilty. I drive my daughter to school on my way to work. It's our time where we talk and bond a little.

Posted by: msampie at February 3, 2004 04:24 PM | PERMALINK

Some suburban schools have kids who are mostly driven because the schools, which were planned with neighborhood/walking in mind, are now in neighborhoods without schoolage kids. The districts have open enrollment and the kids come from distances, and across busy streets, that don't encourage walking. Many of these schools were planned in neighborhoods that are now having serious traffic problems because of the drivers and/or inadequate parking. Time will help some of this as the neighborhoods turn over again with new families. Newer schools are being planned to have access from arterial streets to alleviate the traffic issues. Town planning 40 years ago did not anticipate driving kids to school.

Posted by: Mike K at February 3, 2004 04:32 PM | PERMALINK

I drive my daughter to high school on the way to work. Some walking would be good for her, but her backpack is very heavy, and it would be a huge burden. When I went to school, we had way fewer books.

Posted by: doncoop at February 3, 2004 04:33 PM | PERMALINK

Al has a point about the amount of stuff they have. Schools often don't have lockers now, so the kids have to drag around all their books, every day.

Despite that, my son walks home from his middle school, though I drop him off in the morning. Why do I do that? Because I enjoy having a little more time with him, and not having to get up quite as early as I would otherwise.

I drop him off, then my daughter at high school (its in another municipality, for gosh sakes, no possibility of walking there.) and then I go to work. On the way, we glance through the morning newspaper and talk about stuff. It's a time I cherish.

My son walks home in the afternooon, and my daughter takes the county bus. As a rural kid, I took school buses until I had my own car, senior year.

In elementary school, they both took school buses, though the school was about a mile away. There were some VERY major streets to cross on the trip, so having them walk didn't seem a viable option.

Our neighborhood is pretty good, with few homeless or gangs, so no worries on that score. My wife and I understand statistics, so the kidnap threat is not a big factor.

Posted by: Jay at February 3, 2004 04:33 PM | PERMALINK

When my husband and I were growing up, we each knew we had to be home at dinnertime. What we did during our after school hours was not subject to much scrutiny. Also, on Halloween we could be out on our own ringing doorbells until the neighbors turned out their lights.

Now, because we are afraid of just about everything, we have to know exactly where our children are all of the time. I live in a quiet, affluent, suburban neighborhood and everyone keeps careful track of their kids. On Halloween, parents are out in droves walking the streets with the kids. Seems kinda sad to me. It used to be so much fun to be a kid!

One additional thought: Bush is trying his best to scare all of us to death, and I think that he is making progress. Before long we will look back on our days as care free, secure Americans with the same kind of nostalgia that we now feel when we reflect on our own childhoods.

Posted by: susan at February 3, 2004 04:34 PM | PERMALINK

In my rural, nearly all white/GOP CA county my neighbor drives his kids one house, less than 500', to a school bus pick-up. This was formerly 4H country. Now kids play indoors or in their driveways and seem exceedingly ignorant, fearful, boring, and over-weight. And the last reported neighborhood crime occurred in 1887.

Posted by: UCB70 at February 3, 2004 04:34 PM | PERMALINK

I suspect that a viewing of Bowling for Columbine might provide you with an answer to this question, Kevin.

America is a nation of fear. We have the sense that what we don't know can kill us, and we're simultaneously defiantly proud of our ignorance.

Posted by: eyelessgame at February 3, 2004 04:41 PM | PERMALINK

Most people have said this, but it bears repeating: Parent Paranoia. They hear of child abductions to or from school, or of kids getting run over in crosswalks (often by other parents) and go apeshit, refusing to let their kids walk the short distances.

Of course, in other, newer suburbs, schools aren't actually all that close by the home, so driving does make some sense.

My experience is in Tustin in the '80s and '90s (i.e. not yet a suburban hellhole like Irvine, but getting there). I used to walk fairly regularly in kindergarten and first grade, but a number of abductions in other parts of O.C. put an end to that. Neighborhood parents organized carpools, and this went on into middle school, when we tried (against our parents' strong discouragement) to ride bicycles to school. Eventually most people just got rides from family members, until high school, when you got your American birthright - a car of your own.

Also, I do think that the car culture of suburbs, and especially of Southern California, plays a role. If you walk anywhere, you're seen as either mentally deranged or of a suspect racial group. This isn't a myth, it's what I heard parents and friends' parents saying not a decade ago.

So it's lots of things. In the Bay Area kids walk to school more often (experience is from Berkeley and SF). Here in Seattle there is a very good bus system, which is the primary mode of getting to school, perhaps the legacy of 30 years of busing.

Posted by: eugene at February 3, 2004 04:50 PM | PERMALINK

Susan - the fear existed long before Bush became president. The 1990s was an important solidifying moment but the elements were there dating back to the 1970s. I think Bush definitely plays on people's fears, but he's simply harvesting ripened fruit.

Posted by: eugene at February 3, 2004 04:52 PM | PERMALINK

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has an entire section of their site dedicated to promoting walkable communities. Check out the "Is Your Community Walkable?" and "How Bikeable is Your Community?" quizzes.

If this issue is important to you, then find out if your community has an organization dedicated to promoting walking and biking (mine does) and get involved!

Posted by: galnoir at February 3, 2004 04:56 PM | PERMALINK

I grew up in the 'burbs in the late 70's, and kids then rode their bikes everywhere, at least until they got a drivers license. Kids today seem to have a lot less freedom than we had then.

Another thing that seems to have fallen by the wayside is kids engaging in relatively harmless vandalism like toilet papering the house of somebody you liked or disliked. Throwing snowballs at cars. Ringing the doorbell of a house, and then running away. Some might say this is a good thing, but I think it's a damn shame.

Posted by: Dave at February 3, 2004 04:57 PM | PERMALINK

Gotta justify those $40,000 SUV's somehow.

Posted by: Palolo lolo at February 3, 2004 05:00 PM | PERMALINK

Not sure what it's like out in California, but the Washington Post ran a lengthy article last month about the trials and tribulations of pedestrians in the DC suburbs:

In the early part of the article, the author writes: " I can remember when -- in a suburban Washington childhood in the '60s and '70s -- walking was common, routine even. We walked to the shopping center, walked to school. I can even remember walking on the Beltway in suburban Maryland the night before the roadway opened.

"But somewhere between then and now, walking as an option in suburban America seems to have virtually disappeared. The facts bear this out. Between 1980 and today, the number of children walking to school has fallen from 70 percent to less than 10 nationwide. Walking as a means of getting from here to there is 36 times more dangerous than driving, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a research and advocacy group. Nationally, only 5 percent of all trips are made on foot, but pedestrians account for more than 13 percent of all traffic fatalities.

"Nationally, 78,000 pedestrians were struck and injured by cars in 2001, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 4,882 were killed. By the late '90s in Montgomery County, pedestrian deaths were starting to outnumber homicides."

The CDC website makes the point for kids -- "Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that one-fourth of children between the ages of 5 and 9 who were killed in traffic crashes in 1998 were pedestrians." (click on the "improved pedestrian safety" link)

I live in DC itself and walk to the Metro every day. I don't have kids, but if I did I don't think I'd let them walk here -- drivers are either self-absorbed and inattentive or aggressive and impatient, and the police and city government are at best indifferent. It's hard enough for an adult to negotiate crosswalks obstructed by cars or to watch out for the idiot turning right on red who never bothers to actually look right while inching his/her way around the corner, but it would be really difficult for a child.

Posted by: Eileen at February 3, 2004 05:05 PM | PERMALINK

As a parent who lives on the same street I did as a kid, I think I can say that it's a combination of walking farther (the elementary school I went to a long time ago, and about 5 years ago they opened a new one close enough for the older kids to walk to but they only bus the kindergarteners. I was _very_ uncomfortable with a 1st grader making that walk, which included a busy street with 4-way stop signs and no crossing guard. Then he transfered to a school that was far enough away that walking wasn't an option.

Now, my son's in middle school, which is 2 blocks away, and he walks. It was torture for me the first few days, until I felt more secure that he had the street-savvy. Still, I wouldn't let a kid do the things I did in this neighborhood when I was a kid. More cars, more gangs -- not all of the extra danger is only in our parental minds :-/. And when it comes to our children, few of us are willing to take chances.

Posted by: Morgan at February 3, 2004 05:06 PM | PERMALINK

As architect Andres Duany says modern cities are made to make cars very happy. Cars compete with pedestrians for infrastructure, and the cars usually win. Once you design a property with adequate ground-level parking, you will have already achieved an environment hostile to pedestrians.

Parents demand adequate parking, then it follows that they already created an unsafe for their kids unless they play taxi driver for them. The fewer kids, the more unsafe it is for the next kid who would want to walk.

Get rid of the parking, then the rest will follow.

Posted by: uberman at February 3, 2004 05:06 PM | PERMALINK

Editing errors :-)

"the elementary school I went to a long time ago," should have been "the elementary school I went to was closed a long time ago."

Posted by: Morgan at February 3, 2004 05:08 PM | PERMALINK

I walked to school in the 50's and 60's, and I do not know why things changed, but they did, and not for the better. I doubt things will ever be like that again. It was nice while it lasted.

Posted by: Dinosaur at February 3, 2004 05:22 PM | PERMALINK

What everyone else said. I think fear of crime is number one. A desire for separation and automnomy is two, but it's largely driven by fear of crime. Why are Chicago and New York the only cities I know of where the middle class rides the bus? The books thing isn't why kids get driven; we buy rolling backpacks. (Ok, I drive my younger son, but he commutes four miles with a double bass to a music school.)

I say lots of negative things about my years living in Israel, but before the Al Aqsa violence broke out, kids in the 8-12 age range were walking around independently (or in unchaperoned groups) and it was great.

Posted by: Andrew Lazarus at February 3, 2004 05:32 PM | PERMALINK

I catch a ride to my school. The bus comes at 6:37 am, biking isn't a viable option with a 30-pound backpack and a viola in tow.

Walking takes approximately twenty-five minutes not allowing for traffic, which is always in abundance due to ridiculously poor planning and, paradoxically, all those parents driving their kids to school.

Posted by: 16 at February 3, 2004 05:35 PM | PERMALINK

"Another thing that seems to have fallen by the wayside is kids engaging in relatively harmless vandalism like toilet papering the house of somebody you liked or disliked. Throwing snowballs at cars. Ringing the doorbell of a house, and then running away. Some might say this is a good thing, but I think it's a damn shame

I hear ya. Seems strange to wax nostalgiac over something like vandalism, tho, don't it?
I'm sure the Conservative Fantasy 50s of Pat Buchanan and his ilk never really existed, but things really were a lot different back then. I suppose in rural America there still remain a few more echoes of that time, but overall we are really not in Kansas any more.

Posted by: Goober at February 3, 2004 05:45 PM | PERMALINK

it is weird how it's changed, although I don't think it's 100% for the worse. When I was 9-10 (25 years ago) I pretty much ran around unsupervised, set fire to things, chucked through swamps with snakes, came home with singed eyebrows and dirty clothes. Of course I was the 4th kid so maybe that helped distract my folks.

And yes I biked 2-3 miles each way to school, with a heavy backpack.

Posted by: loser at February 3, 2004 05:57 PM | PERMALINK

Simple. It takes forever to walk a mile with those short little legs kids have. Hell it takes me between 12-15 minutes to jog one.

Although I confess I never lived closer than 2 miles to my school and sometimes as far as 5.

Posted by: SSJPabs at February 3, 2004 06:10 PM | PERMALINK

I am appalled at the number of SUV's double/triple parking in the street to drop off their little "precious" ones.

Apparently, you have to impress those you go to school with by what kind of clothes you wear, where you go on vacation and what type of SUV your mom (or Nanny) drives to your school with.

And, of course, most of these kids "roll" into school.....

Posted by: jillian at February 3, 2004 06:11 PM | PERMALINK

I walked, even to kindergarten. The media has refined it's methods. When I was young, the news didn't try to convince you that the weather was going to kill you, your undercooked chicken was going to kill you, etc. Capitalist-press, junk-food journalism.

But, what we're forgetting is that kids in lower class neighborhoods do walk, even though the risks are higher to them. Rich white kids are worth more, I think society is pretty clear on that score. Remember when that white Morman girl disappeared - at the same time, two black girls of the same age disappeared. Not a peep. Why? Black audience share is not worth as much, and white audiences couldn't give a flip. Colombine vs. a steady stream of murdered inner city kids. Orders of magnitude in difference. We know who matters. Your value is determined by your money, but the gadgets are cheap.

Posted by: andrew at February 3, 2004 06:25 PM | PERMALINK

I think it's great that these suburban kids have parents that are willing to go to the trouble of driving them to school.

I grew up in Tokyo in the 80s, and I used to walk 15 minutes to the subway stop and ride 45 minutes to school everyday by myself since the age of 7. I had to change trains 3 times along the way as well.

This daily commute actually got more hazardous as I grew 13 I was looking older than most 20 year old Japanese women and I was accosted nearly daily by perverts on the trains. You really have to experience it to believe it...everything from light fondling to full on ejaculation.

Anyway, my point was, I would have loved for my parents to drive me to school every morning.

Posted by: Koneko at February 3, 2004 06:40 PM | PERMALINK

I used to be carpooled to school (urban neighborhood), but I then would walk home. I suspect it was a number of practical reasons, but mostly a desire to remove the temptation to skip school entirely. My parents knew I'll be there if they dropped me off in the morning. They also knew I would make my way home in time for dinner, and usually well before.

Posted by: MDtoMN at February 3, 2004 06:47 PM | PERMALINK

I grew up in NW Ohio, almost 2 miles from school (both middle and high). I would ride my bike or walk every day, even in single digit temps during the winter*. That was a little before the "Stranger Danger" hysteria of the mid-80s, but still...have abductions increased that much? Aren't most abductions still by people the kids know, as opposed to strangers?

* It was also uphill both ways, through 8 feet of snow. Okay, I'm making that part up, but the rest is true. In fact, I'd often arrive to school completely numb, which was really a neat feeling and didn't go away until the end of home room...

Posted by: NTodd at February 3, 2004 06:51 PM | PERMALINK

For eleven years the kid across the street from us never was permitted to leave his yard without his mother standing at the door. He never was allowed to go into anyone's house for anything period. He was being held prisoner by his parents who told me they were concerned about kidnappings.

It is the media, Stupid. In a city of 2 million maybe 2 kids get kidnapped by a stranger each year and everyone becomes paranoid because of the wall to wall television coverage. My kids roamed at will the neighborhood playing with all the prisoners. Sad.

As a kid I had a bike and thought nothing of going 15 miles or more to swim in a river or play in a park. I grew up normal, just ask my analyst.

Posted by: Dennis Slater at February 3, 2004 07:05 PM | PERMALINK

I go out for 2-3 miles runs most mornings. Mothers walking their children 2 or 3 blocks to school and children cross the street when they see me chugging along. At first it hurt my feelings then I realized what they were thinking and felt sorry for them. I quit running anywhere near a school because I did not want to get arrested.

Posted by: Dennis Slater at February 3, 2004 07:10 PM | PERMALINK

I have to second uberman's point. If you live on a cul de sac in a residential pod with no sidewalks, with a four lane road carrying 50mph traffic, there aren't many places to walk to and the walk itself won't be pleasant.

If you want to read a great book about how the form of suburban development shapes the behaviors of people who live there Suburban Nation by Andres Duany & Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is a great book. Another author in this vein is James Howard Kunstler. He has several books, among them The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere, as well as a website:

This design issue intersects with the fear of crime. If more people were out walking and more people were directly observant of what is happening on their streets (rather than zipping by in their car) it would be safer for everyone to walk.

Posted by: Joe Bob at February 3, 2004 07:16 PM | PERMALINK

We live in a faculty ghetto for a Big Ten school:

There are 3 registered sex offenders within 4 blocks.

There have been two confirmed stranger-abductions of elementary school-age girls in the past five years.

Guess what? We'll drive our kids to school, thank you very much.

They can get their exercise at swim team practice, tae kwon do, and soccer.

Posted by: phein at February 3, 2004 07:18 PM | PERMALINK

Andrew said: "I walked, even to kindergarten. The media has refined it's methods. When I was young, the news didn't try to convince you that the weather was going to kill you, your undercooked chicken was going to kill you, etc. Capitalist-press, junk-food journalism."

When I was in kindergarten, they were teaching us to "duck and cover." :-) We had it drilled into us not to talk to strangers. There was fear, just different sorts.

Morgan /|\

Posted by: Morgan at February 3, 2004 08:05 PM | PERMALINK

Great post Kevin.

Two interesting sources of further information...

Safe Routes To Schools

Bikes Belong

California's Proposition 51 (encouraging safe routes to schools for kids)

Posted by: Jimm at February 3, 2004 08:19 PM | PERMALINK

Scratch that Prop 51. I'm not sure about that one yet. The others are great links though.

Posted by: Jimm at February 3, 2004 08:22 PM | PERMALINK

Prop 51 is dead anyway.

Posted by: Jimm at February 3, 2004 08:24 PM | PERMALINK

Around here -- the distant DC suburbs of Northern Virginia -- I often see large SUVs waiting at the end of the driveway to pick their kids up. These houses are mostly on 5- and 10-acre lots, so the kids would otherwise have to walk several hundred yards up their own driveway to get home. It probably burns a couple of dollars worth of gas to drive to the end of your driveway, sit idling for several minutes, turn around, and drive back. I can't imagine what reasons the parents have for doing that; none of those suggested in previous comments seem to apply.

Posted by: Bob Munck at February 3, 2004 08:46 PM | PERMALINK

I walked to school alone, or with my sister, from the age of around 6 or 7. (This was during the 80s.) It was about a mile. I took the bus for a while when I went to a school further away; then I cycled for a couple of years. (3 miles, which I could do in 10 minutes... oh for that sort of aerobic capacity now!)

Nowadays, throw in a smattering of deserved fear, a big dose of paranoia, and urban planning based around the automobile, and it's just too damn hard for lots of kids to do anything other than join the school run or take the bus.

Posted by: ahem at February 3, 2004 08:47 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, The heck with kids who are no longer allowed to wander. What is up with your cats?

When I was growing up, our cat was the real roamer (neutered tho, of course!). I remember my dad putting Tucker out before he went to bed, and my mother feeding him first thing in the morning.

Now, my cat, Willoughby, is strictly indoors. If he were to get out, I would probably panic and put a frantic call into 911.

I worry every time I seen Inkblot and Jasmine lolling around in what looks like leaves and other outdoorsy stuff. What kind of cat owner are you anyway?

It's way too dangerous to let cats be cats anymore!

Posted by: susan at February 3, 2004 09:04 PM | PERMALINK

Susan, every time I take my cats to the vet for their shots, the vet tells me that outdoor cats are at a big risk compared with cats who stay indoors all the time. But I've talked this over with my cats and they agree: while they're happy for me to keep them in if it's a fireworks night or they're ill, they'd rather get to go run around outside in the backyard, even if it is a risk. (They're 12 and 14 years old, and every time the vet sees them he comments on how healthy they are: no one else quite believes how old they are, because they act young and fit, and they look healthy and glossy-coated.

Posted by: Jesurgislac at February 3, 2004 09:26 PM | PERMALINK

We live within walking distance to both of the schools my children attend (one 1st grader, one freshman). My older daughter has walked to school nearly every day since we moved here 5 years ago.

My younger daughter usually gets ferried to school because my husband and I both work, (I work 2 jobs), and we often don't have the 15 minutes it takes to walk in the morning. In nice weather, my husband often walks her home, but when it's 10 degrees out, he'll pick her up in the car.

Posted by: maurinsky at February 3, 2004 09:26 PM | PERMALINK

This really bothers me.

My son is only 10 months old, so school is still a ways off.

Nonetheless, my wife and I are looking for a house, and we are actively searching for a neighborhood in which kids play in one another's yards. I don't know whether there are any such neighborhoods here in LA, but we will look.

Also, I do not think that it is fair to blame all of this on the media. Crime in general really has increased dramatically since the 1950's. Everyone I know over the age of 80 remembers the days when no one locked their doors. And I am referring to people who lived in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, not the sticks. Fortunately, this trend is reversing in most major cities. But it will be a while before crime is at 1950's levels.

Heck, even the mafia violence of the 20's and 30's, which featured automatic weapons and criminals who had no compunctions about killing police officers, is nothign compared to the drug violence of today. Have you ever seen a prison movie from the 30's? I saw one set in Alcatraz a few months ago and it almost made me burst out in laughter. During the opening credits, a voice-over was explaining how Alcatraz was the toughest prision in the nation. The inmates were only the most hardened of offenders. The voice-over then started listing the crimes of which the inmates had been convicted: Armed robbery. Assault and battery. Carrying a concealed weapon. Murder hardly made it onto the list. Today, as we know, the offenses would be murder, murder, murder, and serial murder.

I suspect that crimes against children have increased as well. Were there pedophiles in the 1950's? Of course. But something tells me that the rate of these offenses increased along with the crime rate. I can't prove this, it is just a feeling. People in the 50's weren't stupid, and they wanted to protect their children. People would have done something about pedophilia if it had been a major problem. Sure, people didn't talk about sexuality as much as they do today, but even in the 50's everyone knew about the Black Dahila, the crime upon which In Cold Blood was based, etc.

I don't know why crime increased, but it most certainly did, so the fear of pedophelia does seem to be justified.

Posted by: Joe Schmoe at February 3, 2004 09:47 PM | PERMALINK

Well, Willoughby is glossy coated too, but he's also big and FAT. Every time his vet looks at him, he says he's a big, fat disgrace. But his vet is also his owner, so Wills just yawns and waddles over to his food bowl and yowls for more kibble. Due to the noise level and the persistence, the vet aways gives in!

Posted by: susan at February 3, 2004 09:48 PM | PERMALINK

I think the main answers have to do with fear of crime and suburban design that favors autos, but don't overlook school budget cuts as part of the picture.

When I was a kid in suburban Portland, Oregon, I walked a few blocks to my grade school. Had to cross a slightly busy street -- nothing for an adult, but you'd hesitate to send your 1st grader across it alone. The school put out crossing guards before/after school.

For the Jr / Sr high schools, they ran buses for all areas more than 3/4 mile from the front door, usually you'd have to walk a few blocks to a stop.

In the mid 80s, they dropped bus service.

In the early 90s, the elementary schools lost their crossing guards.

Not surprisingly, drive-to-school became more common.

Recently, the problem has been mitigated by yet more of Oregon's budget cuts, in that by closing school altogether, there's no longer a transportation issue!

For the last 10 years I've lived in Boston, and virtually none of the kids at the local school travel by car. The area is so dense they all live within a short walk, and nowhere for parents to park while dropping off or waiting to pick up.

Posted by: dburbach at February 3, 2004 09:52 PM | PERMALINK

If there are no school buses or crossing guards in Portland, Oregon, this is the school district's fault. As much as many here would like to blame everything on "school budget cuts" (obviously Republican budget cuts at that), the fact remains that WE elect our state legislatures and school districts. If we want crossing guards and buses, we should demand them.

The schools in my town still have crossing guards. There is no immutable law of nature preventing Portland, or any other city, from following suit.

I strongly suspect that the cuts in Oregon's crossing guard budget were not met by corresponding cuts in the budgets for, let's see here, school administrators.

Posted by: Joe Schmoe at February 3, 2004 10:00 PM | PERMALINK

In my working/middle/rapidly becoming unaffordable neighborhood across the bay from San Francisco, lots of children still walk to school. They're all immigrant Chinese, or African-American (and a few Hispanic). There is a certain amount of traffic at the local school in the afternoons, with parents driving up to get their kids. But I've noticed how many children actually walk, some of them unaccompanied by an adult. And we even have a few crossing guards! But not on the busy avenue 3 blocks away.

Of course, the test scores at the school are such that I'm going to try my darndest to get my kids in to a better public school up a steep hill, almost a mile away. *If* I manage this, I've been duelling with myself about whether we walk it. It's some hill. But I want more exercise! And it used to be so good to walk to school! etc. But I wouldn't send a kindergartener or even first grader up there alone. We'll see.

I, too walked all over the place as a child in the 70s. Walked into inner city neighborhoods, too, and nobody ever told me not to. (Until some guy grabbed at me and I decided it was too scary). It was just a different time.

Posted by: Leila at February 3, 2004 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, I too walked a mile to school over busy streets at age 7 in the early 70s. And now I drive my 8 year old a half a mile to school over residential streets.

I also was allowed to run around the neighborhood at age 5, and my 10 year old just now is allowed to go to the corner 7-11 by herself.

Fear? Yes. Of abduction? Partly? Of incompetent drivers too high up in their SUVs and so intent on their cell phones that they don't see a 4 foot kid crossing the street? Mostly.

I don't know if drivers were better or worse in 1970 ... but I do know they really suck now in the bay area. The recent immigrants are on average the worst in terms of: flying down residential streets; not seeing pedestrians or other cars; and not understanding local laws like 4 way stops or keeping their own kids buckled up. A friend tells me that in China when a car moves it is the responsibility of the pedestrians and bikes to get out of the way. I think some of the locals drive like the same law applies here.

Posted by: Moniker at February 3, 2004 11:13 PM | PERMALINK

Bob Munck,

"5- and 10-acre lots, so the kids would otherwise have to walk several hundred yards up their own driveway to get home"

Sorry, but my agriculturally-fanatic family pounded it into me growing up: An acre is 4,840 square yards, which works out to ~70 yards per side. if a 10-acre lot was sqaure it would be 48,400 square yards, which works out to ~220 yards per side. So, if the house was on one edge and the end of the driveway was on the far edge, the kid would only walk a couple hundred yards. I used to do more than that just to go play with my cousin who lived next door (I grew up in the fucking boonies, so I never had a neighbor less than ~500 feet from my house, and often quite a bit farther).

More likely, the kid would walk ~100 yards, since the house would be more or less on-center. The only scenario to get several hundred yards would be if the lot was one acre wide and 10 acres deep, with the house at the far end (~700 yards).

I had friends who not only walked to elementary and middle school, but even walked home at lunch, then walked back for the next class period.

Posted by: Phalamir at February 4, 2004 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

Kindergarten: 1956, University of Maryland. I don't remember how I got back & forth. Various mom's cars, I think. I remember helmets & toy guns.

Elementary school, 1957-1961. It was only 3/4 mile away and we walked. College Park, Maryland.

El Morro, Thurston, Laguna Beach High School: 1961-68: buses all the way. Two miles to high school, 1000' elevation. A long walk home, sometimes.

On the rare occasion that I had to prevail on my mother to get me to school on time, she scared the shit out of me with her aggressive driving. I'm getting my own back at her now, trip after trip as she grabs at the straps in my car.

Posted by: bad Jim at February 4, 2004 03:19 AM | PERMALINK

As a parent of children who fall within this nonwalking cohort I can offer several reasons:

1. With very early school start times, my children would have to wake up 15 precious minutes earlier. They get too little sleep as it is.

2. The 30 pound backpack. Text books have become heavier, homework requires the text books be brought home every night, and this makes for a load my kids can't reasonably carry the mile or so from school.

3. Weather in the DC area is very bad most of the school year. It has been extremely cold and frequently icy since around Thanksgiving. It is dangerous or very uncomfortable to walk in such conditions.

Posted by: dmh at February 4, 2004 04:06 AM | PERMALINK

I seem to remember an article in some periodical whose thesis was that our current crop of parents has (my words) put their children on a very high pedestal and are inordinately over protective. I believe that the writer was lamenting the loss of an outgoing and adventuresome spirit that used to be a part of childhood. If some one remembers such an article or two, let me know.

Posted by: Keith G at February 4, 2004 05:49 AM | PERMALINK

Is it really so complicated? People are lazy now, even kids... plain and simple.

Posted by: Justin (NC) at February 4, 2004 06:10 AM | PERMALINK

It's the child abduction hysterio of the 1980s.

Some groups were claiming that 80,000 kids were abducted every year, which is more than all Viet Nam Deaths.

It turned out that they counted every time a complaint was filed against a parent returned kids late from visitation, every kid lost for an hour at the mall, parental custody dispute kidnapping, etc.

The actual number of the really scary kind of abductions is less than 500/year.

Your child is at more risk from lightning strikes if you sign him up for Golf.

Posted by: Matthew Saroff at February 4, 2004 06:20 AM | PERMALINK

Here's a good article on one reason why there are fewer kids walking to schools these days:

Why Johnny and Jana Can't Walk to School - by Jay Walljasper

..."Communities are abandoning historic neighborhood schools that students can walk to in favor of new schools the size of shopping malls built in far-flung locations," writes Edward T. McMahon, director of the American Greenways Program, in a dispatch for the Elm Street Writers Group, an online news service covering environmental and community issues ( "Schools serve as community anchors," McMahon notes. Many events, from Little League games to fitness classes to public meetings, happen after-hours at the local school. The fact that many of these threatened schools are in inner-city neighborhoods or struggling small towns means that their closing cuts deep into the heart of places that already have been battered.

Alarmed by what's happening all across the country, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included neighborhood schools in its 2000 list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places. But this is a bigger issue than simply architectural heritage. Communities that have lost their school feel different without kids laughing and clowning along the sidewalks. It's more difficult for parents (especially low-income families) to participate in activities at distant schools, and they must shoulder more responsibility for chauffeuring their kids home from after-school programs.

Bigger, far-flung schools add to the already rising costs of education. A study in Maine found that while school enrollment in the state dropped by 27,000 between 1970 and 1995, the annual costs for busing jumped from $8.7 million to $54 million, due in large part to the consolidation of local schools.

The trend toward larger, out-of-the-way schools defies a tide of recent evidence showing that small schools serve students better than large ones do (see Utne Reader, Jan./Feb. 2001, p. 26). Kathleen Cotton, an educational research specialist at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon, notes that "a large body of research in the affective and social realms [of child development] overwhelmingly affirms the superiority of small schools."

"Although it is often assumed that large schools are cheaper to operate and provide richer curricula than small schools," Cotton is quoted in Planning Commissioners Journal (Summer 2000), "studies show that neither of these things [is] necessarily true." ...

Posted by: David W. at February 4, 2004 06:52 AM | PERMALINK

My kids took the bus all through elementary school. We didn't let them walk (about 1 mile) because (1) the route by road had very narrow sidewalks and heavy traffic, and (2) the more direct route by bicycle path and through several parks raised the possibility of encounters with unknown adults (fear of crime) and there was no crossing guard for the one major intersection (which had no stoplight and a very wide road right-of-way. Now that they are in middle school, they walk about a mile each way but in a group of three. Most of the route is along quiet residential streets, but the last quarter mile is along a busy four-lane road with the need to cross exit ramps (next to the overpass) of an even busier 6 lane road.

Posted by: jm at February 4, 2004 07:19 AM | PERMALINK

I would love to see a study regarding this generation's parenting skills and how they affect the current crop of kids' self-sufficiency, independence, and sense of responsibility. If there is a more child-centered culture, I'd like to know where it is.

What happens when a generation of coddled, over-protected, center-of-the-universe children takes over as adults? Could this be the root of the tax-cuts-for-me and screw the economy mindset? There seems to be a decrease in personal responsibility that plays itself out insidiously in so many ways and I often wonder if it doesn't all stem from Americans' recent fascination with child-worship.

Posted by: chris at February 4, 2004 08:16 AM | PERMALINK

I'd also like to point out that some school districts do not *permit* parents to let their children walk to school. They must take the bus or be driven. They're afraid of being held liable if something happens to a child walking off the grounds.

Posted by: Karen Underwood at February 4, 2004 08:26 AM | PERMALINK

"Most people have said this, but it bears repeating: Parent Paranoia. "

Maybe someone else has asked this question, but here goes: Why don't the Paranoid Parents walk their kids to school?

Even with crossing guards, there is a major street that my kids will have to cross to get to their elementary school and that seems like a lot to ask a 5 year old. when my kids are 8 and up, I fully expect them to walk to school. Until then, I hope my wife or myself will be able to walk with them.

Posted by: Dan at February 4, 2004 09:13 AM | PERMALINK
Crime in general really has increased dramatically since the 1950's.

True, although mostly in property crime. (Sex crimes statistics have increased, but there is probably room for considerable debate over how much that is do to social factors encouraging reporting).

The voice-over then started listing the crimes of which the inmates had been convicted: Armed robbery. Assault and battery. Carrying a concealed weapon. Murder hardly made it onto the list. Today, as we know, the offenses would be murder, murder, murder, and serial murder.

Actually, the murder rate in 1997 (6.8 per 100,000) wasn't a lot more than it was in 1960 (5.1 per 100,000). As a proportion of all crime, it was much smaller (5.1:1887.2 in 1960, 6.8:4922.7 in 1997). Probably "drug trafficking" would be the main source of today's "Alcatraz" prisoners.

Posted by: cmdicely at February 4, 2004 09:23 AM | PERMALINK

Cmdicely, that is interesting. I suspect that the increase in property crimes, with the corresponding increase in locked doors, etc., has led people to be more frightful of crime in general.

This has changed the fabric of society itself. Residents of large urban areas who remember the days when they used to leave their doors unlocked now have to lock their doors.

Also, I wonder how much television has contributed to this? It is very rare for a person to be a firsthand witness to a crime, or even a serious accident. I have only witnessed one car chase firshand, and have never seen an armed robbery, a murder, a child abduction, or anything like that. If all I had to go on was first-hand experience, I'd feel that crime is pretty rare.

But you can turn on the local news on any given day and see murder, kidnapping, assault, etc. It's right there before your eyes. I suspect that this does make people fearful.

Sure, they had ratios back in the 50's, and newspapers too, but the visual impact of SEEING that poor girl get taken by that psychopath has got to be more profound than hearing about it on a radio newscast.

Posted by: Joe Schmoe at February 4, 2004 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

"The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself."

Relevant here, relevant in the War on Terrorism, and relevant to the Bush White House in multiple ways.

Time for a good 'ol revival, because when you look at it this way, Democrats are braver than Republicans across the board. We've forgotten that.

Posted by: Brendan at February 4, 2004 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

cmdicely, the increase you note, from 5.1 to 6.8, is in excess of 30%, which is a non-trivial amount, although I do think that people overestimate their risk. If our society would concentrate on incarcerating violent criminals for extremely long periods upon the first offense, however, and not waste jail space on less dangerous people, I think fear would subside. The very fact there are sex offender registries indicates misplaced priorities. If sex offender registries were entirely comprised of people in their 80s, I think people would be less anxious.

Posted by: Will Allen at February 4, 2004 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

I'm in an older suburban neighborhood (narrow streets, no sidewalks) three long blocks from the middle school my daughter will be attending next year. Last year there was an attempt to kidnap one of the middle school students off the street as he walked to school -- it was one of our friendly neighborhood registered sex offenders, who was quickly identified and arrested. My husband and I have already discussed letting the kiddo walk to school; she'll walk if she can do so in a group. Fortunately, there's some kids her age down the block that she's friends with, so it looks like she'll have walking buddies. (If they walk; we haven't checked with their parents yet.)

She buses to her current school, but she has band before school three days a week, so my husband drops her off. And she has band after school two days a week, so he picks her up. I think she could take the activity bus to get home from after-school band, but that'd get her home about an hour later, and she's pressed enough for time (in the fifth grade!) as it is.

Posted by: Ab_Normal at February 4, 2004 04:01 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, is your neighborhood safe for pedestrians? Many aren't. Overblown fears of abduction aside, many parents are simply reponding to the practical fact that it isn't safe for anyone to try to walk through the modern American suburb.

This recent article by Mary Battiata of the Washington Post highlights how dangerous it is for pedestrians -- of any age -- to make their way through the suburbs.

Posted by: RA at February 4, 2004 04:26 PM | PERMALINK

Like everyone over 50 I walked or biked to school until I got a car in senior year of high school. But we didn't have to carry those backpacks! I tried to keep bicycling (live in LA) after college but I gave up after 2 or 3 months because it was too dangerous. I don't mean because car drivers couldn't see me; I mean because they actively tried to hit me, sideswipe me, run me off the road -- and this was in Santa Monica, home of the Westside Liberal until SUVs got so popular, now home of the Gas-Guzzling Jerk. Do I wish things were still like in the 50s when I was a kid? Hell, no! For all the nostalgia about safe neighborhoods, what I primarily remember about the 50s was anti-Communist paranoia, being told to keep my IQ to myself so boys wouldn't hate me, and intrusive, snooping neighbors gossiping about everyone who wasn't exactly like them.

Posted by: Temperance at February 4, 2004 05:20 PM | PERMALINK

What a great life we're making! Kids need to wear helmets when they're not strapped in a car seat, but they can't have lockers at school because somebody might store drugs in their locker. Of course, the same anti-drug laws create a black market to support gang activity, and make it possible for the police to ignore the career criminals who will go through your lock like a hot knife through butter.

In America fear trumps all, so none of this is likely to change anytime soon. The real question is, why do we pay for buses to pick up children who wait for the bus in mom's SUV? Why not just have the child's chauffeur take them directly to school?

Presumably this will be solved by "better" drug testing that makes it impossible to hire drivers for school buses. Other nations will not be surprised by the final demise of the "crypto-human land whales" of the U.S.....

Posted by: serial catowner at February 5, 2004 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

I am 38 and grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs. I went to a small Catholic school about a mile off of our hill. My Mom would drop us off but we would walk home, (including dreaded Cable Avenue which was like Mt. Everest to six year old legs)

We were briefed about talking to strangers, not accepting rides etc. and we grew up alright. We always walked in pairs at least and we were constantly vigilant.

A friend of mine, who lived in a somewhat nicer neighborhood talks about how most of them got off the bus and then had between and eighth of a mile to a mile walk.

ON rainy days a few of the parents would pick up their kids a the bus stop. Get this! Those kids were then mocked and ridiculed as babies by their walkign peers. In fact Tim and his sister told their parents not to pick them up!

Can you imagine the scene today? SUVS and Chevy Blazers would be lined up if there was a cloud in the sky, and my friend's parents would have undoubtedbly been charged with child abuse

Posted by: Bob Diethrich at February 8, 2004 01:47 PM | PERMALINK

Will one of the moonbats here please explain what this topic has to do with SUVs and the President of the U.S.? Thanks.

Posted by: Bill OH at February 11, 2004 07:34 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry to get back on topic, but like others, in the 60's & 70's I walked and biked to school, and yes, it really was uphill on the way home.

Currently, my two elementary school children walk a half mile to school just about every day. Usually its a family affair with mom, dad and even the dog along. Fortunately in Northern Cal our weather is almost ideal such that its rarely too wet and our "freezing" mornings amount to 45F such that we can do this year-round. Its a nice way to start the day, and from my perspective, even if I manage nothing else in the day, I've gotten a mile's walk in.

There is a Middle School in the area as well so most mornings there are a fair number of parents and children walking and biking. And really the "critical mass" idea works in the respect of the two primary concerns: abduction (most likely overdone by media, but real nonetheless) and traffic (underrecognized, but more of a risk factor, and sadly, many of the culprits are other parents). Namely, that the more people that are out walking and biking, safety should be improved in respect to both of the above concerns.

Each year our school participates in the annual Walk to School day. We have a great turnout. Yet, many people can only seem to manage to walk or bike in this one day of the entire school year. Go figure.

Regarding heavy loads, yes, some mornings the backpacks seem extra heavy with books and lunches. Twice a week we carry musical instruments as well. The 30-lb figure has been tossed around, does anyone know for sure? If one considers that an able 160-lb adult backpacker can carry a 40 lb pack for hours and miles in a day, it doesn't seem unreasonable for an 80 lb child to carry a 20 lb load for a 15 min walk.

Funny thing is, for a nation that can put men on the moon, land sophisticated spacecraft on Mars, and has capabilities unmatched by any other nation the planet has ever known, that so few people seem able to walk a few blocks.

Posted by: CAwalks at February 11, 2004 02:05 PM | PERMALINK

Due to budget cuts in our school district, they won't bus any kids that live within 2 miles of school. That is much too far for an elementary schooler to walk. It would also involve crossing some major streets and an interstate highway.
Now that the residents of our small suburban city have passed a school levy, there will be more kids on buses and less in their parent's "evil" SUV's.

Posted by: Mary at February 12, 2004 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

San Jose Unified School District just voted to close two more elementary schools due to budget shortfalls. Of the twelve elementary schools owned by the District, now six will be leased to private schools. Each of the twelve schools is situated so that, as originally planned, students walking to school would not have to cross any major roads. As a result of the school closures, there are no more "neighborhood schools," and children are forced to cross one or more busy roads, thus increasing (1) vehicle traffic, (2) the risk of vehicle accidents, and (3) the incentive for parents to drive their children to schools, resulting in bad health habits. Unfortunately, school districts are currently not held accountable for creating any of these traffic and health problems when they lease their facilities to private schools, so there is no incentive for them to refrain from closing schools when money is tight.

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