Newly analyzed data shows that more children are walking to school in California, just as the Safe Routes to School program is facing a potential cut in funding in Governor Jerry Brown’s budget.
The 2009 data from the National Household Survey, commissioned by the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, was taken from 22,000 California households. It found a ten percent increase in the number of children walking to school between 1999 and 2009.
The six counties within the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) planning region had the highest number of children who walk to school, at 27 percent, along with the largest number of those who live within two miles of school, at 75 percent.
Travel behavioral analyst Nancy McGuckin, who examined the data, said the level of walking among children headed to school was quite different between the regions.
Some of that had to do with the percentage of children in private schools, who are more likely to be driven. The Bay Area had the highest number of kids in private schools.
"With more children in private schools, those distances are longer, usually. They’re not the little neighborhood elementary schools that we’re familiar with. And so more children are driven," she said.
The Sacramento region, which plans to host a Safe Routes to School national conference this August, had the lowest percentage of children who walk and bike and live within 2 miles of their schools primarily because schools are sprawled out.
"They’ve closed the little tiny schools that used to be in the neighborhoods and consolidated them. And these are all for the right reasons, you know. Having bigger schools means you can have more amenities like pools, and teams and things, but it means that children live farther from school," McGuckin pointed out.
The survey also looked at socioeconomic disparities that influence whether a child walks or bikes to school:
Among high-earning households, significantly more children are driven to school and fewer children walk or bicycle than in lower-income households. African-American and Hispanic/Latino students are much more likely to walk or bicycle to school compared to their White or Asian counterparts, who are much more likely to be driven to school.
Although the SCAG region had the largest percentage of children who walk, half of kids who live within two miles of school are still driven, which McGuckin said presents an enormous mode shift opportunity.
"If you start at the young ages, and you teach kids to walk and bike to school, for instance, they’ll walk and bike more for other purposes. Two and a half times more, actually, from this data, than the children who were driven to school," she explained.
"So, when they get older, they’re independent and familiar with walking and biking and think about walking and biking as potential ways to get around, to get to the store, to get to work, and they become healthier adults and people who have a great choice in how they travel."
That’s why, say biking and walking advocates, programs such as Safe Routes to School are so important. But in Governor Brown’s current state budget proposal, funds set aside for Safe Routes would end.
“The current proposal, as written, is a step backward for California’s active transportation future. The budget proposal needs to be amended to include dedicated funds for Safe Routes to School, to eliminate loopholes and to ensure that pedestrian and bicycle funding continues to flow to local agencies,” said Deb Hubsmith, the director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.
See more of the data here.