It all hinges on a key phrase: "If it's possible."

The students who live 100 yards from the school are probably still driving to this mega-campus.

Around 30 to 40 years ago, the percentage of kids that walked to school was around 60-70 percent. Go into a room of older adults and ask them to raise their hands if they walked to elementary or middle school, and you’ll be looking out on a field of arms waving in the breeze. Go into a room of college freshmen today, and ask them the same question, and the hands will be few and far between.

It’s a hard number to track exactly, but it’s clear that the number of students walking to school has plummeted. The U.S. Department of Transportation puts the number of students living within just one mile that walk to school at around 30 percent.

Less than 1/3 of students that essentially live within walking distance are walking to school.

With fuel prices going through the roof, school districts all over the country are looking for ways to cut back the massive expenses that busing students each day can accumulate. To put it in perspective, Fairfax County here in the Washington, DC area, runs the largest busing operation in the country. Over 1,500 buses transport over 100,000 students five days a week, representing higher ridership than Greyhound. And those buses are getting between 5-8 miles per gallon for the most part.

Loudoun County, another suburban DC county a little further from the core that was largely rural until just the last 20 years, is struggling mightily to pay their annual fuel bills (close to $5 million), and is considering asking more children to walk to school each day. But in a county of cul-de-sacs, two-lane country roads, arterial highways, few sidewalks, and relatively few walkable areas, they’re likely to find that kids who live close aren’t walking to school for very obvious reasons:

It’s not safe, it’s not enjoyable, and the districts are so large that most kids are scattered far from the school.

The Washington Post reports today:

For instance, children are eligible for busing if they live within the walking zone but would have to cross a major road or a dangerous area to get to school.

Encouraging more kids to walk to school is a great idea, but the quality and design of the built environment are likely to be the greatest barriers in keeping even kids who live close by from walking to their schools. As the story says in the closing, “There’s just so many benefits to [students’] walking, if it’s possible.”

If it’s possible, indeed. If we walk more kids walking to school, saving us billions in fuel costs each year, we need to save our smaller neighborhoods schools and ensure that new schools are built in places with good connectivity.

Learn more about the importance of school design in a community’s growth patterns with these two resources:

National Trust for Historic Preservation
Smart Growth America: Children and Schools

photo: Smart Growth America