Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Driven to school

An article in the July 19 issue of The Scotsman says that Scottish parliament members are considering "no-car zones" around schools. The idea is still in the discussion phase, and so there are no details, but the government would ban cars from around schools at certain times of the day. The intention is to encourage children to walk or cycle to school. It would be done in conjunction with cycle routes. By contrast, England has been encouraging "park and stride", voluntary programs to encourage the same thing: get kids walking or cycling to school as a way to lower child obesity.

It absolutely shocked me how many kids around Monroe are driven to school each day, either by parents or by school bus. It's an accepted part of life that kids will be driven to school. There is a semi-circular drive in front of Logan's school that acts as a "kiss and ride". We drop Logan off, but that's because he has to be in class before 7:50 a.m. and we're driving past there anyway.

Logan's school is about a kilometre from our apartment. I checked Google Maps and found that the distance from our apartment to Woodcrest Public School in Oshawa, ON, the school I attended from grade 2 to 6, was also about a kilometre distant. (This surprised me; I remember the walk as being much longer.) Not only did I walk that distance for five years (sometimes riding a bike when I got older, but through snow in the winter), I did it twice a day. I always went home for lunch. Very few kids got rides to school. There was a "safety patrol" that helped the younger kids crossing the road. When I went to Ridgeway Senior Public School for grade 7 the distance increased to 1.6 km, or a mile. We moved before grade 8, reducing the distance to Ridgeway to about 1.4 km. I rode my bike to Ridgeway whenever I could (meaning September to November, and April to June).

The Scotsman article says that some 22% of kids in Scotland are driven to school. I'm sure the percentage in Monroe, LA is much, much higher. It's pretty much a given that kids are driven to school. This just floored me. It's not something the American media grabs hold of when they talk about childhood obesity, but it has to be a factor.

It certainly floored me when I first saw all the cars dropping kids off. It floored me even more to learn that the school bus picked up kids where we lived. I asked Alana why kids didn't just walk to school. She looked at me like I was talking in a foreign language.

Not having had a child in Toronto, I'm not certain how kids get to school. My friends Chris and Liza had a problem with cars outside their house (they live across from the school) but most kids in the neighbourhood walk. Likewise, I lived across from a school and it looked like most kids walked there. The bike rack was always full, suggesting a large number of kids riding their bikes. I remember a ton of bikes in the Ridgeway bike rack.

I think the shift away from letting kids walk home changed in the 1980s. I seem to remember an increased awareness of child predators and safety issues with regard to kids walking to school. There's also the move to both parents working. Our mornings are incredibly busy. We drive Logan to school not only because we drive past the school anyway, and not only because until late last year he still wanted one of us to walk to his class with him, but because we'd have to wake up half an hour earlier to get him up earlier and off to school in time.

Speaking of school lunches, Alana remembers always eating lunch at school. Logan eats lunch at school. When he first started going and I was out of work I asked her if she wanted me to take him home for lunch. She just looked at me funny (that foreign language thing again). It was then that I discovered that kids are just assumed to eat lunch at school, and that schools frown on kids leaving once they get there. Mind you, they only have about half an hour for lunch and the young kids eat around 10:30 (with a snack in the afternoon), so it's not very practical taking them home for lunch.

By contrast, we had an hour for lunch. Neither Woodcrest nor Ridgeway had a cafeteria. Kids eating at school ate bagged lunches on benches in the gymnasium. I think that's all changed now. I remember Woodcrest getting a big expansion, including a cafeteria. At the time, though, the only school I went to that had a cafeteria was the high school, McLaughlin Collegiate and Vocational Institute. Even then I only ate lunch there a handful of times. By that time we lived right behind the school. The school clocks were always a little bit slow (or ours were always fast); I could climb the back fence and walk to school such that the time I left was later than the time I arrived!


Michael Skeet said...

My school-going experiences are probably too prehistoric to be of value these days (I remember air-raid warnings during the Cuban Missile Crisis...), but FWIW I never ate lunch at school in elementary or junior high school. In high school I took a lunch a fair amount of the time, but never bought lunch.

One of the amusing things about parents driving kids to school is the argument that it's safer for kids. Statistical research has apparently shown that kids are now at greater risk of being hit by a car... because of the high density of cars in the vicinity of schools thanks to all those parents driving their kids in order to keep them safe. (One study in Philadelphia showed that 75% of children struck by cars were hit right outside their schools.)

On the other hand, I've also seen stats showing that if a majority of children are driven to school (and speed limits are ruthlessly enforced), the number of children being hit by cars drops. So who knows?

Agree with you, though, that the health benefits of walking to school ought to be encouraged. A number of Canadian school boards are doing this.

Allan Goodall said...

It wouldn't surprise me if it was true that accidents have both risen and decreased, based on the school's location.

Logan's school has an adult crossing guard at the intersection in front of the school, one or two teachers directing traffic in front of the school and a number of kids helping out. This is in a suburban area where there are really only two or three places kids cross the street to get to the school. Traffic is such that cars crawl through there, anyway.

If the schools are in a wide-open suburban area, particularly with busy roads, I can see kids being safer if driven to school. On the other hand, schools in conjested city streets with poor sight lines and lots of kids within easy walking area could result in increased accidents. Look at the school across from Chris and Liza. That area is just not designed for the traffic volumes that happen around the school.

As for eating at school, I wonder if things have changed in Canadian schools so that most of them have cafeterias, or if eating at school is more of an American thing? In Alana's case, her high school was a long way from home so there was no option but to eat at school. (Her school, Buckeye High School in Deville, LA, came to national attention in 1981 when three girls refused to be bussed to an integrated school 15 miles away. A web search will turn up news articles about it.)

Michael Skeet said...

The studies I've seen suggest that the second type of school you described -- urban, in congested areas -- are the ones in front of which more children are being hit by cars. The suggestion is that traffic laws are more rigorously enforced in the 'burbs.

The question of school cafeterias probably comes back around to a point we've discussed before: Canada is much more urbanized than the U.S., in the sense that the percentage of Canadians living in cities of 500,000 or more is considerably higher. Anyone growing up in a smaller town probably has further to travel to get to high school, and thus will have to eat lunch at school. And the evidence suggests many more Americans grow up in those smaller towns.