Safe Routes to School :: Practice and Promise
Safe Routes To School - Why?
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Chapter One








Children's Health

What has happened to the health of children in this time? There are some strong indications that children's health has suffered.

First, thousands of children each year are killed and injured in motor vehicle crashes—as passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Motor vehicle injury is the leading cause of death for children aged two to 18. The number of children injured and killed in traffic has fallen over the past 20 years, though the rate of injury for children is highest among all age groups.9 There is evidence that lowered death rates for child pedestrians and cyclists do not reflect greater safety—just fewer numbers of children walking and bicycling.10

Second, a large number of American children—more than 3.8 million in 1999—are afflicted with asthma, which can be triggered and exacerbated by air pollutants. Asthma rates throughout the population have been increasing for 40 years.11, 12, 13

A third indication of ill health among children is excessive weight gain, tied closely to increases in chronic conditions such as diabetes. The percentage of American children who are overweight has steadily increased, from approximately four percent in the 1960s, to more than five percent in the 1970s, to the 2001 level of more than 13 percent. Increases in childhood weight problems have been accompanied by even greater increases in obese and overweight adults—an estimated 61 percent of the population aged 20 to 74 years as of 1999.14, 15

It is important to note that low-income and ethnic minority children are most affected by obesity, injury, and asthma.16, 17 These children do walk to school more than their more affluent peers, but poor air quality and speeding traffic put them at higher risk.18 For these children, there are compelling reasons to provide truly safe routes to school. Walking is an excellent way to promote their health, and they are already doing it. Supporting this activity is a first step toward minimizing health disparities.


We realize there are many reasons parents are reluctant to allow their children to walk to school. We know that it is the parents who make the choices; if children were allowed to choose, most say that they would rather walk. But parents drive them because they fear traffic dangers, or they worry about strangers bothering or kidnapping their children; although kidnapping is statistically a very small risk, it looms large in the fears of parents. Parents also may drive their children to school because they feel that they are so busy the only time they have with their children is in the car.

Safe Routes To School Benefits

Valid as these reasons why children don't walk to school are, there also are benefits that could be gained from the daily, active trip to school:19, 20, 21

  • Children who are active are alert and do well in school.
  • Being active improves self-image and independence.
  • Physical activity prevents obesity and promotes healthy heart and lungs, lessening the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Children who are out and about in their neighborhoods develop an understanding and comfort with their surroundings, and learn to make their way in the world.
  • If fewer children are driven to school, fewer car trips are needed, thus reducing air pollution, noise pollution, and other environmental impacts of driving.
  • Increasingly congested roads take a toll on the emotional well-being of adults. One less car trip gives a parent or guardian some breathing space in his or her day.
  • When parents and children walk even a block or two together on the trip to school, the benefit of “quality time” comes in tandem with improved fitness.
  • “Eyes on the street” is a phrase that describes a neighborhood where people watch the daily activities. When more people are out and about, having more eyes on the street helps to prevent crime.

Many Reasons, One Goal

SR2S advocates—parents, children, legislators, health professionals, school administrators, and environmental activists—have concluded that children's walking-to-school behavior is linked to land use, travel practices, and health effects. They also have concluded that it is time to reverse the trends. Some SR2S advocates have been primarily motivated by concerns about injury, and some by environmental deterioration, some by their shock at seeing children inactive and overweight.

Regardless of their specific concerns, SR2S advocates are working together to change the patterns of the past half-century. As more people wake up to the benefits of walking and biking to school, they join the movement to encourage these behaviors in their communities. They are committed to assuring that the children who grow up in the 21st century will be able to recall walking and bicycling to school among their favorite childhood memories.


  1. U.S. Department of Transportation. (1995). Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey.
  2. U.S. Census Bureau. Population: 1790 to 1990. United States Summary.
  3. Environmental Protection Agency. (2001). Our Built and Natural Environments: A Technical Review of the Interactions Between Land Use, Transportation, and Environmental Quality.
  4. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Transportation Technologies.
  5. Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, London, Greater Vancouver Regional District. (1999). Morning Peak Trip by Purpose.
  6. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (2001). Transportation Energy Data Book. Edition 21.
  7. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Policy. (April 2000). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 1998.
  8. Stewart, Arthur J. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Personal Communications. (May 2002).
  9. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (1998). Traffic Safety Facts.
  10. Geary, Riley. Traffic Fatality Trends in the U.S., U.K. and Australia: A Comparative Analysis. (2000). Institute for Traffic Safety Analysis.
  11. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Surveillance of Asthma in the United States – 1960-1995; 47
    (no. ss-1).
  12. American Lung Association. (February 2002). Trends in Asthma Morbidity and Mortality.
  13. California Air Resources Board. (2002). The Children's Health Study.
  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Health Examination Statistics. Unpublished data via Web site. United States. (2001).
  15. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service, Office of the Surgeon General. The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. (2001).
  16. 16 James Bowman Associates. Preschool Children in California: Nutrition and Active Play. (2002). California Department of Health Services.
  17. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Surveillance of Asthma in the United States – 1960-1995; 47 (no. ss-1).
  18. Braza, Mark.1999. Walk to School Day Survey Analysis.
  19. Bogden, J.F. and C.A.Vega-Matos. (2000). Fit Healthy and Ready to Learn: A School Health Policy Guide. Chapter D: Policies to Encourage Physical Activity. National Association of School Boards of Education.
  20. Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kids Walk-To-School. A Guide to Promote Walking to School. (2000)
  21. Eccles, Jacquelynne S. (1999). The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14. The Future of Children, Vol. 9 No. 2. The David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

A picture of young students with a stop sign.






A picture of young children with bicycles and helmet


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