Walk to school, yes, but don't forget your lawyer

Liability issues? Corporate sponsorship? The Safe Routes to School program has encouraged thousands of kids to get out of their cars and onto their feet, but what ever happened to a simple stroll?

By Linda Baker

Published October 13, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

When Andy Clark, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based League for American Bicyclists, speaks to parent groups about bicycling and walking, he likes to toss out the following query: How many people walked to school when they were children? The answer, he says, is always roughly the same: about 75 percent. But when he asks the same group how many have kids who walk to school today, the figure drops to 25 percent.

In our post-bipedal world, the youngest generation is spending mornings and afternoons -- you guessed it -- in the back seat of mom or dad's car. "It has taken us 50 years to destroy our ability to walk," said Clark. "And it will take 50 years to get it back again."

Over the past two decades, transportation activists have focused efforts on redirecting state and federal transportation funds away from cars and road building toward bicycle, pedestrian and mass transit alternatives. By all accounts, their efforts are succeeding. Between 1973 and 1991, the 50 states spent a total of $40 million on bike and walk infrastructure improvements. By contrast, expenditures on bike lanes, sidewalks and pedestrian trails now total $422 million per year, an order of magnitude greater -- albeit still a paltry 1 percent of the country's total transportation budget.

The increase in bike and pedestrian spending started with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, an overhaul of the highway transportation bill. It established categories of funds for local projects that contributed to air-quality standards, as well as a wide range of bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Fifteen years later, a new program is rising to the top in the bike-walk hierarchy. It's called Safe Routes to School, a rapidly expanding 4-year-old effort that coordinates transportation, health and education agencies to get children walking and biking to school. Statewide Safe Routes programs are already underway in California, Washington and Wisconsin, and the pending reauthorization of the highway and transit bill, TEA-3, contains a $1 billion appropriation for a federal Safe Routes to School program.

"It has the potential to become one of the best ways to improve conditions for walking and biking," said Clark, describing the broad cross-section of Safe Routes supporters, including parents and teachers, health agencies and urban planners. "There's an unassailable coalition."

Sharon Roerty, director of community programs at the National Center for Bicycling and Walking in Bethesda, Md., concurs. "Safe Routes to School means a better walking and biking environment for everyone," she said. "We picked schools because that's motherhood and apple pie. But it could be a senior center; it could be a train station."

But if Safe Routes to School is a case study in successful grass-roots organizing, the story behind it also unfolds as a classic -- and damning -- parable of contemporary American culture. Once a national pastime taken for granted by millions of children, walking to school is, under Safe Routes, a multimillion-dollar effort orchestrated by adults and branded with its own catchy acronym: SR2S. The collapse of walking as a natural activity and its rebirth as a public-private partnership suggests the intermodal equivalent of a society gone mad -- an Alice in Wonderland state of affairs spotlighted by the corporate sponsorship and liability-insurance measures described in SR2S toolkits.

Through engineering, enforcement, education and encouragement mechanisms, Safe Routes to School seeks to challenge the supremacy of the automobile in people's lives -- along with its inevitable adjuncts, fear and isolation. But the real measure of the program's success, suggests David Engwicht, an Australian traffic consultant who pioneered SR2S concepts such as the Walking School Bus, will be the withering away of its own apparatus.

"One of the major problems with SR2S," said Engwicht via e-mail, "is that we have forgotten the larger goal -- independent mobility for children."

Following similar programs in Australia and Europe, SR2S got its start in the United States four years ago, when Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., persuaded the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to provide $50,000 grants for test projects in Marin County, Calif., and Arlington, Mass. Both programs posted significant increases in the numbers of kids who walked and biked to school, a result that helped propel the billion dollars into the highway and transit bill now making its way through Congress.

In lieu of federal funding, SR2S programs already exist in 26 states. The majority, like the newly minted program in Portland, Ore., are local efforts, although California set up a $20 million statewide SR2S program that has received over $240 million in project requests from local jurisdictions.

Wendi Kallins, project manager for the Marin County SR2S program, which has become a national model for the burgeoning movement, says parents routinely cite safety as the main reason they prevent their kids from walking or biking to school. But more often than not, parents' safety arguments are like falling down the rabbit hole; plunge deeper, and it gets curiouser and curiouser.

Fifty percent of the children hit by cars near schools are hit by vehicles driven by parents of other students, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Researchers for the Marin County program found that up to 30 percent of morning traffic is caused by parents driving their children to school. (These figures have since been validated in other parts of the country.) And as Dave Glowacz, the education director at the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, points out, driving to school has so thoroughly penetrated the K-8 consciousness that school "arrival" and "dismissal" times have been linguistically recast as "drop-off" and "pickup" hours.

In the SR2S vernacular, parental concerns about safety have as much to do with "stranger danger" -- the chance that a child walking to school will be snatched off the sidewalk by a complete stranger -- as a fear of traffic. In the United States, the actual incidence of stranger danger is decreasing; the number of kids kidnapped by strangers nationwide in 2002 was 115, down from 200 in 1988. "But when you're dealing with gut-level fears, there's not much you can do," Kallins said. "The whole level of fear in our culture is increasing." She describes one father who attended an SR2S meeting: "'With my pretty blue-eyed daughter,' he said, 'I'm convinced she will be the one.'"

Child-abduction terrors exploit the gap between perception and reality. They also reinforce a logical fallacy -- "I won't let my kids walk because it's not safe; it's not safe because there aren't enough people walking" -- that cuts straight to the heart of pedestrian and bike advocacy. In the late 1960s, 90 percent of children who lived within a mile of their school walked or biked. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 31 percent of such kids do so. Instead, working parents drive their kids two blocks to school to save time, then spend 5 to 10 minutes circling the building to find a safe place to drop them off -- a description that fits not only my neighbor across the street but also thousands of other parents across the country. Then there's the mother who smashed a kid in the face as she was opening the door of her SUV to drop off her own child.

"It's just mayhem," says Glowacz, who gathered data about kids in a northern Chicago suburban elementary school who were hit by cars while biking to school, only to discover that the only documented incidents occurred near school grounds during drop-off and pickup times.

Parents, of course, harbor legitimate reasons for not wanting their kids to walk to school. When the car is king, the simple act of crossing the street is fraught with risk, especially for children who are more inclined to be chatting with friends or blowing the fuzz off dandelions than paying attention to the steel-and-glass menace headed their way. New suburban schools are sited miles from students' homes, cash-strapped municipalities can barely pay for road paving, much less sidewalks and crosswalks, and cellphone-equipped SUVs are only getting bigger and more dangerous.

In the battle to make streets safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and children, activists have taken aim at federal transportation laws and state departments of transportation, which have historically focused on shoring up highway networks at the expense of local streets. The passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991 signaled a major break with this tradition by supporting local bike and pedestrian projects through two new programs: Enhancements, and Congestion and Air Quality Mitigation.

Federal SR2S legislation, Clark said, would "further the shift" away from state networks to local improvement projects, which invariably involve more innovative and flexible approaches to traffic problems. In suburban Marin County, for example, Kallins said identifying a champion in the schools who could organize parents, teachers, children and community members was "absolutely essential." With the assistance of a private traffic engineer, David Parisi, several cities in Marin County did implement SR2S engineering improvements, including enhancing school crosswalks, installing high-visibility signs, and modifying traffic-signal timing to assist pedestrian crossings.

The "encouragement" piece of the program, Kallins emphasized, was instrumental in increasing the numbers of kids who walked and biked to county schools. Promotional campaigns included frequent-rider contests sponsored by Trek -- the winner gets a bicycle -- adult-supervised walk-to-school programs such as Walking Wednesdays, and safety art, in which kids designed and posted signs around the school about the benefits of walking.

In February 2000, a survey of parents in Mill Valley showed that almost 70 percent of the students were driven to school. By the spring of 2002, walking to school rose from 21 percent to 38 percent -- an 80 percent increase in two years.

In New York City, where relatively large numbers of kids do walk to school, the focus of a citywide $2.5 million SR2S program will be engineering improvements to improve safety and to counteract a growing trend toward driving. City contractors are finishing up mappings of crashes around 1,350 neighborhood schools. ("We call them crashes, not accidents," noted Kit Hodge, campaign coordinator for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit that inspired the city to adopt the SR2S program. "It's a philosophical difference.") By 2005, pedestrian improvements and traffic-calming measures are scheduled to be installed around the 135 most dangerous schools.

Along with the opposable thumb, walking is what differentiates humans from the lesser primates -- bipedalism, evolution experts like to say, is precisely what led to greater brain development and civilization as we know it. As for walking to school, it's part of the American pastoral, from Tom Sawyer, who traded tall tales with Huck Finn about warts and dead cats en route to the schoolhouse, to Ramona the Pest, who immortalized a Portland neighborhood not far from my own and who walked to school without adult supervision -- or authorial censure -- when she was only 5 years old.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, where liability insurance for kids who walk or bike to school has become one of the major challenges facing SR2S advocates. In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency funded a $96,000 Portland project to develop a Walking School Bus -- in which groups of kids walk designated routes to school under adult supervision -- at a local elementary school. Organizers spent months mapping safe routes, conducting outreach to parents, and running criminal background checks on senior citizen volunteers, only to have the project collapse in the absence of liability coverage for kids who might become injured or go missing. A senior-citizen-led walking school bus in Larkspur, Calif., met with a similar fate, according to Kallins.

"The fact that one would have to even consider kindly senior citizens being sued for walking kids to school says a lot about our culture," she observed.

The risk-management mentality in K-12 education grew out of a litigious climate in the 1980s, said Glowacz, who led a session on SR2S and liability during the September 2004 Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference in Victoria, B.C. -- a presentation that drew more than 160 people. To limit the liability for schools, he said, courts ruled that districts can be held responsible for "willful and wanton negligence" only if they were aware of an imminent danger and didn't do anything about it.

Many schools have interpreted "willful and wanton negligence" by banning or discouraging organized walk and bike programs. (The ironies multiply; if a child is hit by a car while walking to school, Kallins points out, the driver, not the school, should be held responsible). In a case that has become part of SR2S lore, the superintendent of Wauconda Community School District 118, the site of Glowacz's data-gathering project, temporarily banned kids from cycling to all schools in the district last year after a boy who had been walking his bike near the school grounds was hit by a car driven by his gym teacher.

The prohibition inspired Glowacz -- and community members -- to adopt an aikido approach to the problem at Wauconda Elementary school. They used the research procedures of SR2S (called SRTS by the Chicagoland Bike Federation) to fulfill the school's liability mandate, a plan that succeeded because the data so clearly demonstrated that the evil, in this case, came from within. Since the data proved that the real danger was caused not just by drivers, but by drivers during drop-off and pickup times, Glowacz was able to argue that the school had to do something to change the situation. "The [liability] focus shifted from kids on bikes to kids being dropped off at school," he said.

Many SR2S programs have also found liability coverage through local police departments. It's also worth noting that SR2S liability insurance is much less of a problem in the U.K. and Australia because of universal healthcare coverage.

A partnership of parents, teachers, planners, health advocates and the private sector, SR2S comes as close as you can to a village raising a child in the United States. With its feel-good emphasis on kids, the program also offers the bike and pedestrian movement an unparalleled opportunity to build enthusiasm -- and acquire funding -- for sustainable land-use and transportation practices.

And yet, as a parent and a pedestrian advocate myself, I'm well aware of the contradiction that governs the entire walk-to-school movement: the thrill at seeing hundreds of kids walking to school during organized events such as International Walk to School Day on Oct. 6, tempered by the twinge of discomfort at their Nike sponsor-clad bodies, the police escorts, even the "on message" signs about the health and exercise benefits of walking to school. This isn't your father's walk to school.

As Engwicht points out, under SR2S, adults view walking and biking to school as a transportation problem -- how do you get kids from home to school as safely as possible. But for children, walking to school is not about transportation, much less health or exercise. "It is about the chance for an adventure," Engwicht said. "To spend time with friends, to explore the physical environment, to build a relationship with the built environment and develop a sense of place."

Roerty, of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, agrees. "We've forgotten the kid in the program," she said. She cites her own daughter, who likes to cut through people's yards on the way to school, as an example. "Kids like risk." she said, noting that some experts have jokingly proposed renaming the program "Un Safe Routes to School."

Among alternative transportation advocates, the dictum is: "Everything old is new." But can a fearful, risk-averse car culture afford kids who wander to school instead of walk, who explore alternative routes, who stop and smell the flowers and splash in rain puddles?

Engwicht proposes a system of "activity nodes" throughout the city, where adults would sit and watch children as they moved from place to place. "SR2S, including the Walking School Bus," he said, "needs to lift its focus from overt, constant supervision of children to covert, background supervision." It's a kind of wireless-networking approach to the problem, and perhaps one small step toward the ultimate goal: devolution of SR2S into its lowercase counterpart, walking to school.

But for many advocates, that move is still off in the distance.

"It's madness," said Clark, referring to the need for programs encouraging people to walk. Unfortunately, he said, the state departments of transportation haven't done enough on their own. "Hopefully Safe Routes will turn it around."

Linda Baker

Linda Baker is a journalist in Portland, Oregon.

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