Changing Attitudes About Walking and Biking
I live in a small town. The population is around 7,400. The total area is about 1.8 square miles. There are some hills but it’s generally easy to walk and bike pretty much everywhere in town. Even though we have 2 state highways passing through town and therefore have our share of traffic, no street is wider than 3 lanes and there are many quiet residential streets to walk on, avoiding the busier roads altogether. I’ve committed myself to walk/bike to in-town destinations whenever possible, unless I will need to be transporting something more that I can fit in my backpack. I know this is not standard practice, and why is that? I’ve been trying to wrap me head around it and cannot figure out why we are so attached to our cars. It’s definitely a cultural thing. Most of us are raised in environments where the car is the primary means of transportation. And the environment does not encourage us to get out of our cars. So even when we end up living in a community like the one I live in, we are used to just getting into our car to go by that tube of toothpaste rather than walk the 15 minutes to the drug store.
We need to change the paradigm of immediately getting in the car whenever we need to get somewhere and we need to start with our children. My daughter’s school participates in Walk and Roll to School Day every Wednesday. I stand in the courtyard of her school and count the number of kids walking, biking and carpooling to school (we decided to include carpoolers because as a charter school there are a fair number of kids who live outside of town and could not realistically be expected to walk and this was a way to encourage them to reduce their carbon footprint).On the first Wednesday of the month the class that has the most walkers and bikers wins the ‘Golden Sneaker’ award and the class with the most carpoolers wins the ‘Silver Hubcap’ award. They also get a pencil, which is a surprisingly popular ‘award.’ Participation varies but is generally decent. It tends to be higher on the first Wednesday of the month when the award is tallied and pencils handed out (and families receive a phone call reminder the day before). So far this year we’ve had a high of 88% participation. This was on October 8, International Walk and Roll to School Day 2015. November was a close second with 78% participation ( percentages are based on the total number of kids living in town which is 72 attending the grade 3-8 campus). The winter months have been a bit lower which I guess is to be expected, but this is Northern California after all. It’s not like we have blizzards to contend with. As you may have heard we’re in the midst of a drought and haven not had many rainy Wednesdays (although the lowest was 21% which happened during a day of pretty steady rain). So weather really shouldn’t be an issue, although we have some ‘chilly’ mornings now and then.
I know we can do better though. I know there are kids that live within a 15 minute walk to school that rarely, if ever, walk. One kid in my daughter’s class (eighth grade) lives about 1,000 feet from the school and he is almost always driven. I can’t even fathom this. It’s so great for kids to get some exercise before school. Studies show that kids are more alert when they get some exercise before school. Walking is a way to decrease stress and increase creativity. Walking to school gives them an opportunity to be independent, think responsibly and make decisions for themselves.
The most encouraging aspect of being the parent counting the walkers and rollers has been to see the enthusiasm of the third graders, which is the youngest kids on campus. There have been days when the number of walkers/rollers is more than the number of third graders that live in town which means there are families that park away from the school and walk the remaining distance to campus (they are asked to walk a minimum of 10 minutes to be counted). I also hear participation at the K-2 campus is good so I’m hoping that as these kids age the total number of participants rises. The K-2 campus has 2 regular ‘walking school buses‘ which is when a group of children meet at a specific location and are walked to school with at least one accompanying adult.
I am concerned, as I have written about on several occasions (here, here, here and here) that the school is planning on moving from it’s 2 in-town locations, to a location on the edge of town which is far less walk and bike friendly. I’m still hoping it doesn’t happen, but if it does, I hope that the kids that currently walk and bike will have it ingrained enough to continue to do so.
My daughter has been walking to school since kindergarten and I think it’s been so good for her. From kindergarten through second grade it was about a mile walk. She didn’t always walk both ways (which would end up being about 4 miles of walking for my wife), but at least one way every day, sun or rain. In third grade she started attending the ‘upper’ campus location, which is about 3 blocks from our house so her time spent walking decreased significantly. But the day she was aloud to walk by herself, near the end of third grade was great. You could just see how proud she was of her new found independence. I believe it’s made her much more confident and not only in knowing that she can make her way around town on her own, but in other aspects of her life as well.
We need to break the cycle of immediately getting into a car for every trip. There are so many benefits to be gained from walking and/or biking. In his book ‘Why I Walk,’ Kevin Klinkenberg discusses the benefits of walking, breaking them down into four categories; financial, freedom, health and social. I am fortunate enough to be able to walk to my office (it was in my house until about a month ago, but is now about 3 blocks away) and to most of my daily destinations. Because of the way we’ve been building our cities for the past 70 or so years, many of us are not this lucky. But if we look for them, there are opportunities to walk more than we do. I’d encourage you to look for the opportunities to start if you are not walking already. And start your kids walking more. Once it become normal for them, they will likely continue to be walkers into adulthood.
Foremost, the car is a cultural phenomenon, I agree. But I do see attitudes changing. As you know, we moved to our small town precisely for “walkability” and “bikeability” – and here we see home real estate values (per square foot) higher in the more walkable parts of town. So there is value in it.
Town planners need to do more to encourage this, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for business. A major construction project in Downtown Danville that closed large stretches of sidewalk has hurt local businesses, some of whom found out the hard way how much they rely on foot traffic for sales. While the project will ultimately improve walking in town, we’re suffering in the interim.
For kids and schools, safety will always trump environmentalism. Bringing back the school crossing guard would make a big difference, budget cuts have taken that out of so many districts, including ours.