Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Walking to School

Dateline: 10:08 am September 28, 2011 Filed under:

Why do so few kids walk to school? I pondered this after returning home from biking my kid to school and reading this article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press about why kids don’t walk to school. As the article points out, there are myriad reasons why we don’t walk to school. In my opinion, and the article acutely indicates this, it all begins with urban design. A school built in today’s standard issue suburban setting is exceedingly difficult (and not fun) to access on foot or by bicycle.

Let me start with why we can walk or bike to school. First, we live in a house with a sidewalk in front (novel idea!). That sidewalk is part of a network of sidewalks from the classic city-building era – they line both sides of a grid of streets, making walking from any home or building easy and intuitive. Biking that grid of street is equally intuitive. My son just started kindergarten, and most days we bike via bicycle/tagalong/trailer, but some days we walk.

Second, the grid of streets itself is built to primarily accomodate traffic going 20 to 25 MPH. The speed limit is actually 30 MPH (much too fast), but with the high use of on-street parking, most drivers feel compelled to slow down. We must cross one busier, two-lane 30 MPH street (42nd Street), but we do so at a four-way stop sign, and aside from the occasional driver who ignores the stop sign, it is safe. At slow speeds, I can make eye contact with drivers, and that is important. My kids are quickly learning to trust no car, but at least pedestrian conditions are shown to be safer with cars moving less than 30 MPH. My point is the grid of streets along the route to school are safe, comfortable and pleasant to walk or bike.

Third, the school itself is pedestrian-friendly, having been built when it was assumed that most kids (and staff!) would walk (at that time, most families owned one or no cars). It fits nicely on a city block, snug in the neighborhood, with doors a mere 15 feet off the sidewalk. The only asphalt at Northrop (originally Ericsson) School is the playground (OK, there is a small parking lot behind the school, added much more recently in the life of the school). Most states today require outlandishly large sites for new schools to be built upon, making it difficult for any city or suburb to choose to locate one anywhere but the edge of the existing developed area – rarely inside the neighborhood. Large sites on the edge of towns are less walkable. States should set maximum school site sizes rather than minimum.

This brings me to my fourth point – our walkable neighborhood was built with a mix of uses in mind, including a range of housing, commercial, parks and schools. And it was built at a density that is (barely) enough to support walking – our 660 by 330 foot blocks (exactly five acres) contain a minimum average of 26 homes, or 5.2 units per acre. Throw in duplexes and four-plexes, etc., and the density increases. The school is nestled right in to the fabric of the neighborhood as well. This combination of density and design allow a very large number of households to be located within an easy walk of the school. The Pioneer Press article indicates that Bailey Elementary in Woodbury is located along a 50 MPH arterial, across from existing neighborhoods. As a result, nobody walks. Well, duh! We’ve created an urban design monster and we are the only ones that can defeat it. No amount of programmed money targeted at walking to school will make kids walk in that sort of environment.

Fifth – we are lucky. The Minneapolis Public Schools have good schools – not always the case in urban districts. Ours is one-half mile away, and we are fortunate it is no longer a magnet but rather a community school – we automatically get in. Test scores are good, and more importantly, so are its teachers. We are also fortunate the school didn’t get closed down as has been the case in recent years of budget cuts and low enrollment (the most aggregious example of this is Howe School, located in the neighborhood east of me. It closed the very same year that the coffee shop a block away was rated the best place for parents with young children. An example of silo thinking – if the city was really trying to attract and retain families, it would have done more to stop the school district from closing the school in that affordable, family-friendly neighborhood. But I digress….).

Lastly, the principal of the school believes in walking and biking to strengthen community ties. Speaking to us parents, he said “we’ll provide the education, you provide the community.” The existing urban design of the neighborhood, the physical location of the school within it, and the ability to walk or bike to school, all help with creating that better sense of community. My son and I have all sorts of informal contact with neighbors at and on our route to school, helping build those bonds.

There is much work to do. Parents need to understand abduction is a low risk, compared to obesity (a difficult thing given this country’s math scores and the fact that our kids are our most prized possessions). And we just need to get back in to the midset that walking and biking is a normal part of life. Strong community ties cannot be made from behind a windshield. In spite of all those issues, urban deisgn is the biggest. Start with that, and at least the table is then set for walking to school. Make it possible, encourage it, and only then will it happen.

I don’t have much advice for the Woodbury’s of the world except to say for your next neighborhood, make it walkable, denser, and not bifurcated with fast arterials. Oh, and get your state to change its school site density requirements. We know how, we just need to do it. Why do we need to do this? To quote Reverend Lovejoy’s wife from The Simpsons – “won’t somebody think of the children!?”

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