Fewer students walk to school

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. - It's 9 a.m., and the rush is on.

Buses disgorge hundreds of students at one side of Bailey Elementary School in Woodbury. On the other side, parents line up in SUVs to drop off their kids.

"Bye-bye," says Silva Theis of Woodbury, kissing her fourth-grade daughter.

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In the hubbub, no one notices what's missing - the dying practice of walking to school. Of 620 students at Bailey, not one walks - not even those who live one block away.

Managers of a 6-year-old federal program think they know why.

Children don't walk to schools like Bailey because of the lack of sidewalks and safe street crossings.

But after spending $820 million to promote walking to school and reducing childhood obesity, there is no sign the program has actually added any walkers at all.

Parents say the approach is wrong. They say their children don't walk because of fear of crime, Minnesota's harsh winters, and laziness. Parents like to pamper their kids by driving them.

And many schools are built to discourage walking.

So all the sidewalks in the world wouldn't make any difference, said Barbara Smith of Woodbury.

On one recent morning, she dashed from her car to the Bailey door with her first-grade daughter. Inside, she caught her breath, then explained why her daughter doesn't walk.

"Dropping her off gives us special one-on-one time," she said. "And solving obesity needs to start at home, not in five minutes before school."

The history of the federal program is a cautionary tale about changing public behavior - even when the public agrees with the goals.

It was created by former Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2000. Oberstar was appalled at the steep increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

At the same time, he learned that 75 percent of children's trips away from home were in motor vehicles, up from 40 percent in the 1960s. "We have a generation of mobility-challenged children," he said.

The solution? The Safe Routes to School program.

From 2005 through 2010, it was funded for $820 million. Safe Routes gives grants for anything that encourages walking or biking to school - mostly sidewalks, safer street crossings and education. The grants have gone to 11,000 schools in all 50 states.

In Minnesota, 16 projects received $4 million this year - including money for walkways and signage in Burnsville and Blaine.

Safe Routes advocates point to one school in Eagan, where the number of walkers tripled in four years after it got a grant.

Principal Gary Anger of Red Pine Elementary School used most of his $10,000 grant to create a map of the best walking routes to the school.

The grant didn't make any routes safer, but Anger said it was a catalyst for changing the local culture to favor walking.

The school added a wellness committee, an annual fitness fair and two remote drop-off areas to reduce the congestion at the school doors.

The result is that of 950 children, about 150 now walk or ride their bikes to school - 16 percent.

But nationally, there is little evidence that the program is improving children's health.

In 1969, 42 percent of children walked or biked to school, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership in North Carolina.

By 2001, that number had plummeted to 13 percent. Eight years later, after the program was 4 years old, the number was unchanged.

"We take that to be good news," said partnership director Deb Hubsmith, because the decline has been halted. Still, there is no sign that the money has increased the number of walkers.

Many schools are resistant to change because they are designed for drivers, not pedestrians.

Architect Paul Youngquist learned that lesson when he was planning the new East Ridge High School in Woodbury in 2007.

"I wanted to put the parking lots a bit away from the building," Youngquist said.

But at a meeting, someone was aghast at the idea that the move would make students walk farther. "I said: `Good! A walk seems like an appropriate way to start the day,' " Youngquist recalled.

But the chorus of outrage swelled until he relented. He pushed the parking lots next to the building.

"They just don't want to walk," Youngquist said.

Today, East Ridge looks like most suburban schools - akin to a shopping mall surrounded by acres of pedestrian-hostile open space. Not a single student walks to East Ridge.

Youngquist, who has helped plan about 300 schools in Minnesota, said walk-to-school efforts have to fight most parents' deepest fear - kidnapping.

Never mind that the rate of violent crime against children has dropped in half in 40 years and that the odds of a child getting abducted by a stranger are about 1 in 17,000. Parents seem to be as frightened as ever.

"It's nerve-wracking, in this day and age. I worry about predators preying on kids," said Andy Parker of Woodbury, who drives his daughter four blocks to Bailey School every day.

"I may be overprotective, but I have a pretty big fear of that."

Such fears are a reality of modern life, said Gary Dechaine, transportation director for South Washington County Schools, and he wondered if any federal program could change that.

"No parent today would ever have their kid walk six blocks," Dechaine said.

Weather is another obstacle to walking. If transportation habits are set up for the worst winter days, the temptation is to continue them year-round, Youngquist said.

"Once you have that alternative in place, you go with it," he said.

Many parents see the chauffeur service as a matter of good parenting.

At Bailey, Steve Golembiewski dropped off two grandsons who live a few blocks away. He cherishes the time with the boys. "It makes us feel better. We want to be involved," Golembiewski said.

Then, of course, there is laziness.

Michelle Abel has three kids who have never walked to school. She has tried to get them to walk but has given up.

"You can either drive `em or listen to them complain," said Abel, a South Washington County Schools crossing guard.

Parents applaud the effort to slim down their children - in theory.

"More exercise in life is a great idea, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator," said Theis, the Woodbury mom.

So would better walkways make her stop driving her daughter to Bailey School, as she does every day?

Not a chance. Walking to school, Theis said, "would maybe work in California, where the weather is better."

Oberstar, the father of the program, acknowledges these objections. But he said his program is making steady progress in wearing down the nation's unhealthy, anti-walking biases.

"We are changing habits of an entire generation," said Oberstar. "It is going to take time - but it is happening."

If safer routes resulted in more walking, it would happen at the most dangerous intersections - such as the railroad crossing at Ninth Avenue in St. Paul Park.

Twice a day, students must avoid passing freight trains to get to and from Oltman Middle School. The sidewalk ends right at the track.

Even there, no one agrees with the logic of the safe-routes program.

"You could put a nice sidewalk in here, and I don't think it would improve the number of walkers," said Abel, the guard at the crossing.

On one recent morning, only five kids passed by. Abel didn't see that as a problem.

"It's about busy family schedules," she shrugged, as two boys on skateboards passed by. "It's not about the sidewalks."