The benefits of walking to school seem abundantly clear. Walking improves health and fitness. Students who walk or bike to school exhibit better behavior and focus in class. With more kids walking or biking, there will be fewer cars, less traffic congestion and better air quality near the school.
So with all the positive outcomes, why don’t more kids walk or bike to school? The foremost concern is safety—both for students who walk alone and for those who do not know the pedestrian and bicycle rules of the road. It can also be difficult to carve out the necessary time to walk or bike with your children in already packed family schedules. Participating in a Walking School Bus program can address these concerns and bring about additional rewards.
What is a Walking School Bus?
A Walking School Bus is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults. It can be as informal as two families walking to school together. Or, it can be more formally structured with an established walking route, meeting points (stops), timetable and schedule of trained parent volunteers or walking bus “drivers” who can take turns during the week to share responsibility. A successful walking school bus can operate on a frequent basis, such as daily or once a week, or on a more limited basis, such as the first Tuesday of the month or only on special days. Each “bus” is unique and can be custom tailored to fit the needs of any group.
Why a Walking School Bus is Important
A Walking School Bus can be helpful in teaching children about road safety. During the walk, adult volunteers can coach kids on the safest places to cross a street, as well as how to cross at mid-block, main roads and side roads. They can demonstrate the importance of making eye contact with the driver—one of the ways that a pedestrian can be sure that drivers have seen them. A walking school bus is also important to parents who may not initially be comfortable with their children walking to school. The walking school bus addresses many parent concerns related to safety because children are not only walking in a group, but also walking with adult supervision.
How to Adopt a Walking School Bus
Starting a Walking School Bus works best when kept simple. One way is to start off with a small group or “bus” from a single neighborhood with interested parents and children. Steps include:
- Inviting neighboring families to walk together
- Picking a walking route and test it
- Deciding how often the group will walk and determine rules of behavior
- Setting a schedule and creating a call list for weather cancellations and absences (consider designating a backup “driver”)
Who is implementing Walking School Buses?
Several communities in New Jersey have established Walking School Bus programs. In Hudson County, these programs are now in place at 15 schools with programs starting last fall in Bayonne, Jersey City, North Bergen and Secaucus. Jay DiDomenico of the Hudson County Transportation Management Association (TMA) (http://www.hudsontma.org/) said, “It’s been fantastic; the program has been received very well by both parents and the schools.” The TMA hopes to have Walking School Buses in all Hudson County municipalities soon. Hudson County’s communities have generated excitement about the program with a walking mascot and walking song. The main challenge has been to overcome parents’ familiarity with and perceived ease of dropping their kids off at school by car. Hudson County TMA works to counter this practice by showing parents the carbon footprint created by driving to school. Many are surprised by the amount of pollution generated during such a short trip and choose to walk to school with their children as a result. “Parents are often prone to go for the car keys,” said DiDomenico. “As part of the program, we remind parents that in driving their child, children are not learning the required judgment to cross the street. Walking your child to school is one of the best and unique opportunities to spend quality time with your child.”
In Somerset County, about 200 students take part daily in the Walking School Bus program at Somerville’s Van Derveer Elementary School. Established in 2005, the school’s program has become a model for other communities in New Jersey. RideWise TMA, Van Derveer’s principal and parent volunteers have worked together to map routes and develop a schedule for walking to various stops en route. Organizers took about four weeks to plan and implement the program. Building on the success at Van Derveer, RideWise TMA has brought the program to other schools in the county. Further information on the Somerville Walking School Bus can be found at: http://www.state.nj.us/transportation/community/srts/pdf/ss_somerville.pdf
In Middlesex County, Highland Park’s Bartle Elementary School kicked off its Walking School Bus program with about 40 students. Efforts to create the program began as part of the borough’s Mayors Wellness Campaign, a statewide program to encourage healthy living. The program coordinator, Colleen McKay Wharton, has found the borough “very supportive of the program.” The principal, superintendent and the police have helped create the program by identifying safe routes to walk and by getting the word out to the community.
Barriers & Opportunities
1. Liability concerns
Many people starting Walking School Bus programs cite overcoming liability concerns as a significant barrier to getting programs off the ground. There are several ways liability can be addressed. Jim Crane of Ridewise TMA helps lead the Somerville Walking School Bus program and recommends keeping it as an informal, volunteer-based program as a way to reduce liability factors. Rosters are used to check that all students are present and that none have been left behind. In addition, parents are asked to sign release forms allowing their children to participate. In Highland Park, parents who volunteer to lead a walking school bus are eligible for insurance coverage from the town. Crane feels that some of the liability issues for the program are overblown. “Kids have been walking since they’ve been going to school,” he said. “It’s safer to have a program that addresses safety issues than not addressing them at all.”
2. Keeping volunteers
Organizers in both Somerville and Highland Park have found that keeping parents involved is vital in making the program a success. Flyers and on-line surveys can be helpful—to communicate to parents and to get their feedback. Active recruitment by the principal can be crucial. In Highland Park, organizers have divided into four districts or neighborhoods, with lead coordinators taking on the role of communicating to parents operating each route.
3. Benefits (and drawbacks) to formalizing a Walking School Bus
With a formalized program, rules, backup plans for sick or absent drivers, and liability issues are all addressed. This level of organization can be comforting to parents and students who take part. However, creating a formal Walking School Bus may seem too great a task for a parent interested in getting one started. A Walking School Bus does not need to be so formal. Remember — it can be as simple as a few families walking their children to school together.
4. Adapting the bus to include bikers
Some communities have built upon their Walking School Bus success by expanding their programs to include kids riding bikes. A Bike Train operates much like a Walking School Bus but is aimed at students who have “aged” out of the walking program and would rather ride to school. Just as a Walking School Bus can teach pedestrian safety skills, a Bike Train can help kids learn bike safety. The Lebanon School District in Hunterdon County has incorporated biking into its walking school bus program. Students in the 4th grade and older receive bike safety education through presentations and videos, all riders must have their bikes pass a safety inspection, and parents must sign an agreement. And, of course, riders must wear a helmet. All bikes are registered and sporadically inspected to ensure a safe trip. In a Bike Train, one adult cyclist for every three to six children is recommended.
While it may take a bit of time and some planning to get a Walking School Bus started, the benefits can well outweigh the effort spent working out the logistics. Students who participate in a Walking School Bus can get to know caring adults who support kids. Parents can feel comfortable letting their children walk knowing that they are in a group being supervised by adults. While walking to school, kids can spend some time with their friends, make new ones, and feel like they are part of a worthwhile activity. And perhaps best of all, it enables kids to learn life skills and encourages them to adopt walking as a life-long activity.
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