How Not to Get to School

by Carl Duivenvoorden (www.changeyourcorner.com). Carl is one of 22 Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver presentations of 'An Inconvenient Truth.' His column runs every other Monday in the Telegraph Journal.

They’re a common sight when school starts every autumn. They show up on our streets and in schoolyards without fail, as predictably as fall colors. Unfortunately, they’re not very good for their young passengers or the environment.

I’m not referring to school buses, of course. I’m referring to that daily convoy of vehicles that can be seen dropping off kids in schoolyards across the continent. It’s becoming increasingly evident that this well-intentioned practice is doing more harm than good to the kids and their environment.

Why we shouldn’t do it

There are several downsides to driving kids to school every day. First of all, it contributes to inactivity and obesity, problems which have some experts worried that today’s youth may live shorter lives than their parents.

It also creates traffic congestion on streets and around schools. If your route to work takes you past a school, you’ll know exactly what I mean. According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 20-30% of morning rush hour traffic can be parents driving their kids to school. I know of a local school here in NB with just over 300 students, where you can count over 100 vehicles dropping off kids every day. One school; one hundred vehicles; every day.

Ironically, all this drive-through traffic makes school yards less safe for kids. It doesn’t help that many drivers tend to zip in and out a little quicker than they should.

Finally, there is the environmental impact: a fortune in fuel wasted and tons of greenhouse gases produced every schoolday.

So why do we do it?

If you ask the typical parent why they drive their kids instead of letting them walk, bike or take the bus, you’ll likely get one of the following answers: “I drive right by anyway on my way to work;” “I don’t think it’s safe for my kids to walk or bike to school on their own;” “there are bullies on the bus;” “it’s a chance to spend a few minutes together before saying good-bye;” “I need to be on my way to work before the bus comes by;” “I live outside the school bus zone”.

It’s clear that these are valid issues for many families. But there are plenty of creative, effective solutions that don’t involve a vehicle.

Better solutions

If you live near school, the best way to travel is on foot or by bike. The kids may groan, but the activity will help them lead longer, healthier lives.

Concerned about safety? Statistics Canada says that cycling and walking are actually safer than driving, and that crime rates have not changed in nearly a decade. As a parent, I know statistics like that don’t bring complete assurance. So a ‘Walking School Bus’ is a great solution, where kids from a neighbourhood walk to school together under the supervision of one parent, adding walkers as they go. Just nine families participating in a walking bus for a school year will prevent 1000kg of greenhouse gases.

The same can be done with bicycles. In Holland, where no school bus system like ours even exists, clusters of students on bicycles are common.

For longer distances, school buses are safer and more efficient than personal vehicles. If bullying is a problem, talk to the driver. If it comes too early, have the kids wait with a classmate or neighbour. And why should goodbyes at bus stops be any less nice than goodbyes at the school?

If you are among the few who live outside the school zone, a carpool with others in the same situation is a good choice.

And a thought for school administrators: why not give the very youngest students an extra hour of light activity (such as educational games or DVDs), to save one afternoon bus run? Good for the environment, great for fuel budgets.

Many more suggestions and programs can be found at www.saferoutestoschool.ca, an excellent Canadian resource.

There are many alternatives to driving kids to school. The real question is: are parents ready to accept them? Perhaps the first step is to really understand that driving is one of the absolute worst things we do to the environment our kids will inherit – and not driving them to school is one of the easier steps we can take.