Walk and Bike Back to School
September 25, 2015

By Ethan Hipple
Piles of fall leaves, crisp autumn air, seeing friends after a summer apart: Many parents have fond memories of walking or biking to their neighborhood schools. Back in 1969, more than 50 percent of all kids got to school on foot or by bike. Compare that to 2009 and beyond, when less than 13 percent of kids used either method, according to the organization Safe Routes to School. 

And yet, this old-fashioned practice is enjoying a modern revival across the country, with all kinds of positive—and trackable—implications.    

Learning and cognition. A 2012 study of 20,000 Dutch children found those who biked or walked to school performed measurably better on tasks requiring concentration—an improvement that lasted four hours. Walking or biking to school ranks up there with getting a good breakfast or a solid night’s sleep. 

Connection to nature. Common sense tells us that walking provides a more intimate relationship to our surroundings than driving, and research confirms it. A recent study by Bruce Appleyard of San Diego State University shows that kids who bike or walk have a better sense of place and geography than those who get around by car or bus. He found that kids who are driven to school often don’t know where they are, leading to anxiety and unwillingness to venture out on their own. 

Social impact. Traffic makes us lonely. Anyone with a long commute knows it, but decades of research tells us that neighborhoods with lighter traffic encourage a sense of home and belonging. Donald Appleyard, Bruce’s father and the author of the 1982 book Livable Streets, published research indicating that residents in low-traffic areas have two more neighborhood friends and twice as many acquaintances than those in high-traffic areas. 

Confidence and satisfaction. Exercise releases dopamine and serotonin, natural compounds in our bodies that trigger feelings of pleasure and well-being. Put simply, exercise makes us happy, and a degree of independence makes us more resilient and self-reliant. Maybe this is why Grandpa has such fond memories of walking 5 miles through the snow, uphill both ways.

The best way is the easiest: Walk or bike to school with your kids. After a few dry runs, they might be ready to go it alone. For kids younger than 8 or 9, try a “walking school bus”: a group that walks together, often with an adult chaperone. Need a push? Consult the following resources. 

Walk and Bike to School Day. Find or set up an activity in your area for this annual October event atwalkbiketoschool.org

National Bike and Walk Day. Check with your school or parks department for group rides or walks affiliated with this May event. In the New Hampshire town where I live, 600 school kids and commuters participate—one out of every 10 people. If there isn’t an event near you, set one up at bikeleague.org

Safe Routes to School. This group provides advice, plus technical assistance and grants for creating sidewalks and bike paths. Read more at saferoutespartnership.org.


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