Across the country, less than 15% of K-12 students walk or bike to school. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed states where data is available (DE, MD, PA, VA, WV), about 73% of students use a school bus. This amounted to over 752,000,000 miles traveled by school bus during the 2017-2018 school year. Increasing walking and biking and decreasing school transportation by bus or car can have positive health and environmental impacts.
Transporting students to school is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions which contributes to climate change and air pollution. The air pollution generated can increase rates of chronic health issues like asthma. Walking or biking to school more can reduce the amount of traffic and air pollution. This increase in physical activity can also benefit student’s health and academic performance.
Establishing a Safe Routes to School program can increase the number of students walking and biking and ensure the paths to school are safe. However, not every school community is designed for safe routes to school. Ninety percent of high income communities have sidewalks compared to 49% in low income communities. If students choose to work on this solution, they will first need to identify the root cause of why fellow students aren’t walking or biking to school.
Connecting to Issue Investigation
Investigations exploring local environmental conditions and human health can lead towards solutions that limit pollution from school buses and cars, and address the barriers to walking and biking to school. These solutions can benefit student health by decreasing vehicle air pollution around the school and increasing physical activity. The connection to greenhouse gas emissions can be connected to investigations on climate change impacts. A solution that establishes a Safe Routes to School program would also have connections to equity and environmental justice topics that might be uncovered during investigations.
For those working towards green school awards, these actions can reduce a school’s environmental impact by reducing the number of school-related traffic and improve the health and wellness of students and staff by encouraging more physical activity and decreasing exposure to exhaust fumes.
Facilitating Student Action
Students should continue to have opportunities to share ideas and opinions throughout the process of identifying, planning, and implementing action. Listed here are just a few ways students can stay engaged while working on this solution—but there are many more! The complexity of each activity/task can be adjusted for each grade level.
Create - students can help create a Safe Routes to School program. Students can engage school and community members in establishing the route and asking for support.
Educate - students can educate others on the benefits and barriers of walking or biking to school. Depending on age, students can create flyers to send home with students, write morning announcements, present to school administrators or parent groups, or write letters to local publications.
Advocate - students can advocate for the establishment and support of safe walking and biking routes to schools. Engaging with government or school leaders can allow for the creation of new sidewalks, signs, crosswalks, and crossing guards.
Monitor - students can start this solution by monitoring the current modes of transportation used at their school and look for differences and similarities in physical activity, attendance, etc. based on how students get to school.
Share and Celebrate - students can celebrate their work by sharing what they have learned and accomplished with the broader school community by writing articles, press releases or inviting reporters from the school paper and local news agencies.
Walking and Biking to School Resources
Surveying the walkability and bikeability of a school community can help students start to gather data on the safety and physical conditions of students’ routes to school. Check out this Walkability Checklist and Bikeability Checklist.
If you are interested in establishing a Safe Routes to School program or researching benefits of walking or biking to school, explore the Safe Routes Partnership for a variety of resources.
To test the logistics and safety of more students walking and biking to school, you can organize a Walk and Bike to School event. Find resources on how to organize an event and to go beyond the single event to year-round biking and walking.