Program Encourages Kids to Bike, Walk to School

Fewer than 15 percent of children walk or ride their bikes to school. Instead, they're getting a ride in their parents' car. A new government program encourages kids to use their own two legs to get to school.

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COHEN: So, breastfeeding might not be a way to combat childhood obesity, but how about getting a little bit more exercise by walking to school? In the late 1960s, nearly half of all kids walked or biked to school. Now fewer than 15 percent deal. Instead, they're grabbing rides in the car with mom and dad.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports on a government effort to get kids out of those cars and back on their own two feet.

Mr. ROB MOSS(ph): Now, are you buckled up?

Ms. JULIANNE MOSS(ph): Yup.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Fifth grader Julianne Moss is headed home from school with his dad, Rob.

Mr. MOSS: I think you're going to be surprised how fast we get home.

SCHALCH: We drive two and a half blocks through a quiet Northern Virginia neighborhood in the Moss' green Subaru.

Mr. MOSS: And we're just about home. And we're parking. So Julianne, how long has that been?

Ms. MOSS: One minute and three seconds.

SCHALCH: And you guys do this pretty much every day?

Mr. MOSS: We do. We do this pretty much everyday.

SCHALCH: Nowadays, this is not that unusual. Nationwide, more than half of kids are driven to school in private cars. And there's a big downside to all of this. Just ask Glen Andrews, a gym teacher at Meadow Hall Elementary School, half and hour north in Rockville, Maryland.

Three quarters of these students live within a mile of school but only one quarter walk.

Mr. GLENN ANDREWS (Physical Education Teacher, Meadow Hall Elementary School): The students today are not getting enough exercise.

SCHALCH: Andrews passes out jump ropes to a class of fifth-graders.

Mr. ANDREWS: All right. Now spread out and make sure you have plenty of space where you won't hit anyone with those ropes.

SCHALCH: Since Andrews started here 38 years ago the number of kids who walk to school has plummeted.

Mr. ANDREWS: I'm noticing there are a lot more obese kids and they can't do the activities that a lot of students used to be able to do. Jumping rope for 30 seconds would be about as long as they can do.

SCHALCH: Childhood obesity is just one problem, traffic's another. In some communities, 20 percent of morning rush-hour congestion is from parents driving kids to school. Ironically, that added traffic makes walking more hazardous and prompts more parents to drive. Can this trend be reversed? There is one man on Capitol Hill who believes it can.

Representative JAMES OBERSTAR (Democrat, Minnesota): This is the biggest thing I've ever done.

SCHALCH: Minnesota Democrat James Oberstar is now chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Rep. OBERSTAR: You get one opportunity in a career of public service to change the habits of an entire generation for the better.

SCHALCH: Oberstar believes a new $600-million federal program he created called Safe Routes to School will do this. He says pilot projects prove that with a combination of incentives and safety programs you can more than double the percentage of kids walking and biking.

Rep. OBERSTAR: In each of the experiments children have said, oh, we like this, we're finding new friends. This is fun to walk or bike together to school.

SCHALCH: The first step is to get kids and parents to try it. The kids are easy. All it takes is contests and prizes. Parents are tougher. They want safety and convenience. One solution for them is the walking school bus. One parent, the driver, collects the kids on foot, lines them up and shepherds a whole group of them to school.

Schools can also use federal grant money to reduce hazards. Glenn Andrews' school, Meadow Hall, is buying a speed camera to discourage people from doing 40 in this 15-mile-per-hour school zone. It's also planning to fill in a 200-foot gap in the sidewalk.

Will this convince parents like Dixie Moore(ph) to stop driving to school and back twice a day? She rolls down her window as she sits in a line of cars that snakes through the school's parking lot and out into the street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DIXIE MOORE: It doesn't make sense, does it?

SCHALCH: But she has her reasons.

Ms. MOORE: Too many kids get snatched off the road these days. I don't trust it.

SCHALCH: Other parents don't trust their kids to be careful enough crossing the street. Julie Trent(ph) pulls up in her minivan. For her and many other parents rushing between work, day care and soccer practice, it's all about saving time.

Ms. JULIE TREND: If I walk with my three younger kids, it will take me 20 minutes, whereas it takes me three minutes to drive.

SCHALCH: Even the government acknowledges that it won't work for everyone.

Mr. TIM ARNADE (Program Manager, Safe Route to School Program, Office of Safety): It's a fundamental changes to society today, there's very little unsupervised time for children.

SCHALCH: Tim Arnade administers The Safe Route to School Program for the federal government.

Mr. ARNADE: You're not going to turn back the clock entirely, and we understand that. I think we just need to give families the choice.

SCHALCH: And remind them that walking is at least an option.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.

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