Florida Town Tries Walking School Bus Project The iconic big yellow school bus is getting some competition from sneakers and sandals as a new way to get to class at Belcher Elementary in Largo, Fla. Kids and parents are teaming up in surrounding neighborhoods and walking to school together. The initiative aims to promote the healthier option of walking for both parents and children, while cutting down on vehicular traffic at the school.

Florida Town Tries Walking School Bus Project

Florida Town Tries Walking School Bus Project

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The iconic big yellow school bus is getting some competition from sneakers and sandals as a new way to get to class at Belcher Elementary in Largo, Fla. Kids and parents are teaming up in surrounding neighborhoods and walking to school together. The initiative aims to promote the healthier option of walking for both parents and children, while cutting down on vehicular traffic at the school.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Here is an old-school solution to a relatively new problem. Health experts and educators want more children to walk to school to reduce obesity. In Largo, Florida, one project is trying to set an example.

Bobbie O'Brien of member station WUSF reports on the walking school bus.

BOBBIE O'BRIEN: In 1969, 42 percent of children walked to school, according to a federal household transportation survey. But by 2001, only 16 percent were making the trek. Third-grader Zoe Schwartz(ph) goes to Belcher Elementary. She and her mother, Annie Schwartz(ph) are among the walking minority.

Ms. ANNIE SCHWARTZ: All right. I need a little cup of coffee for the road, you know, just like everybody else. All right. Bye. See you guys later.

Ms. ZOE SCHWARTZ: Bye, Ma. Bye, Dad.

O'BRIEN: Schwartz and her daughter hike the quarter mile to school.

Ms. ANNIE SCHWARTZ: Walking makes sense. Walking is convenient. We get to chat. We get to see the people that we know in the neighborhood. It's everything I do when I was growing up in Wisconsin, where walking was sometimes a little bit more chilly.

O'BRIEN: Florida's year-round fair weather may seem ideal for walking, but 90-degree temperatures and high humidity tend to dampen enthusiasm. Inclement weather, distance and safety are concerns cited in the federal survey for the drop in the number of walkers. But it is the rise in childhood obesity that Megan Carmichael is targeting as she hands out prize tokens to kids walking and biking to Belcher Elementary.

Ms. MEGAN CARMICHAEL (Program Manager, Heart of Largo): Hi, girls. Did you already get one of these tokens? Well, here's another one for each of you.

O'BRIEN: Carmichael is with the Pinellas County Health Department. With money from a Tufts University grant, she started a walking school bus project in Largo.

Ms. CARMICHAEL: Why not walk? It's great exercise. Kids are more alert during the day. It saves on gas, helps the environment. There are so many reasons just to walk to school.

O'BRIEN: The concept of a walking school bus is simple. A group of children walks or bikes to school with one or more adult. It's informal. But the idea is to have scheduled stops along planned routes and for trained volunteers to take turns escorting kids from stop to stop to school. Some communities are recruiting help from college students and retirees. The Belcher program is trying to enlist parent volunteers.

Assistant Principal Pamela Easley says a change to neighborhood-based schools already reduced the number of buses serving Belcher from nine to only four this year.

Ms. PAMELA EASLEY (Assistant Principal, Belcher Elementary School): We've had an increase in our car transportation as a result of that, and so we are trying to, with the walking school bus, get more students to walk in organized groups and safe groups to school.

O'BRIEN: By far, most students live within two miles of Belcher and are not eligible to ride the bus. With only one entrance and exit, traffic can be a nightmare. After the first day of school, Laura Mason(ph) avoided the bottleneck at Belcher by parking a half-mile away. A local temple offered its lot as a park-and-walk option for parents.

Ms. LAURA MASON: I grew up in Colorado when it was 20 below and we walk. So, this is nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MASON: This is like a drive-through world, you know? We drive through for food. We drive through to drop our kids off. It's so weird.

(Soundbite of children)

O'BRIEN: Still, a majority of parents here prefer to drive their children. Some sit in their cars with their engines idling outside the school for half an hour before the last bell, yet it takes only half that time, 15 minutes round trip, to park and walk to school.

For NPR News, I'm Bobbie O'Brien in Tampa.

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