Frequently Asked Questions
What are the benefits of letting my child walk or bike to school?
- Increased physical activity
- Decreased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease later in life
- Increased attentiveness and readiness to learn at school
- It teaches responsibility and is empowering
- It increases neighborhood safety by putting more “eyes on the street”
- It saves money on gas and wear and tear on our cars
- It decreases traffic congestion at the school and the chance of traffic accidents
- It’s fun for children
- It’s good for the environment
Is my child ready to walk or bike to school?
Every child is unique, so it is impractical to assume that every child will demonstrate a specific ability at a specific age. Parents and caregivers typically know their children’s abilities best. However, it is common for parents to overestimate their child’s walking or bicycling skills, leading children to walk or bike in situations they aren’t prepared to handle. For this reason, it is important to spend time walking or biking with your child to assess their abilities and provide guidance and feedback as they learn more complicated pedestrian or bicycling safety skills. For more information see the resource guide: Teaching Children to Walk Safely as They Grow and Develop
My child is young, and I don’t feel comfortable letting them walk or bike alone but I don’t have time to walk with them. What should I do?
Children under age 10 need adult supervision as they learn pedestrian safety skills. But many of us lead busy lives and don’t have time in our day to walk or bike with our child to school. Some parents overcome this problem by establishing a Walking School Bus or Bicycle Train with their neighbors. This entails a group of children walking or bicycling to school with one or more adult. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking or bicycling their children to school, or as structured as a schedule of trained volunteers with a planned route and designated meeting points. With some planning, families can collaborate to share the responsibility of supervising children on their way to school, alleviating some of the time constraints and safety concerns that so many of us have.
What is a “Walking School Bus”?
If many children in your neighborhood take the same route to school, you can organize a Walking School Bus program among the parents. The children will walk to school in a group, with one or more parents accompanying them. Starting with the child living farthest from the school, the group will pick up children along the route as it moves. After school, one or more parents will be at the school to lead the group home. Learn more at www.walkingschoolbus.org
What is a “Bicycle Train”?
A variation on the Walking School Bus is a Bicycle Train, where a group of children and adult leaders ride together to school. A Bike Train offers a safe, fun way to ride as a group. Because of the equipment involved and the potential need to ride on a road, planning and conducting a bicycle train is more involved than having a walking school bus. Read more about Guidelines for Bike Train Engineers and Cabooses from the Metro Atlanta Safe Routes to School Project, and at Bike Train PDX, based in Portland, Oregon.
What are the liabilities associated with a Walking School Bus or Bike Train?
Liability concerns are not uncommon. A program that simply encourages or promotes bicycling and walking to school should not, in most cases, expose schools to increased liability risk. Even school-sponsored walking and bicycling programs, such as a Walking School Bus or Bike Train, should not expose schools to any greater liability than other school-sponsored activities. Of course, schools must ensure they are meeting their responsibilities for children’s safety just as they must routinely do with all other forms of school transportation and with other school activities. The National Legal Policy Analysis Network has great resources to help California schools learn more about liability related to walking and bicycling to school.
How can we involve children who live too far to walk in our Walk to School activities?
In communities where most of the students travel farther than a walkable distance, you can still have a Walk at School Day. A pre-determined staging area can act as the meeting place for families who drive and then park and walk their children the remaining distance to school. Church parking lots or shopping centers that are approximately ½ to ¼ mile from the school make great staging areas. In addition, specific recess times, physical education or even class time can be dedicated to getting out and walking together. It’s an activity that all children can enjoy, and the walks can be tied into a variety of classroom activities. For more information see the resource, Including Students Who Live Too Far to Walk.
Is our neighborhood safe enough to let my child to walk or bike to school?
Safety concerns are one of the primary reasons why parents are reluctant to let their children walk or bike to school. These safety concerns range from unsafe traffic conditions, bullying, scary dogs, gangs or neighborhood crime. These are practical problems that pose a real challenge to keeping students safe on their journey to school, whether it’s as a pedestrian, by bicycle or by bus.
a. Unsafe traffic conditions
Many of us are concerned about traffic safety when it comes to walking or biking. When the road infrastructure is appropriate (e.g. well designed sidewalks and crosswalks), walking and biking can be safe means of transportation for our children. If the infrastructure is lacking or inappropriate, the risk of harm to pedestrians and bicyclists increases. In these circumstances it may be necessary to work with school and local officials to help create safe walking and bicycling environments. The Walkability Checklist is a tool that can be used to improve the safety of your child’s route to school.
Bullying is any hurtful or aggressive act towards another that is intentional and repeated. To prevent bullying on the route to school, children should be encouraged to walk or bicycle together. Walking School Buses and Bicycle Trains can help alleviate bullying concerns by having a trusted adult present on the way to and from school. Students should be taught to be “responsible reporters” and tell a trusted adult in the event that bullying becomes a problem, as well as to identify safe places and alternate routes to school. For more information check out National Education Association Bully Free: It Starts With Me or Stopbullying.gov
c. Loose or scary dogs
Dogs running loose in a neighborhood can put children at risk of being threatened or bitten and prevent them from feeling safe on the journey to or from school. A primary step is to teach children about dog safety. There are a lot of good resources about teaching children how to behave around dogs and what to do if threatened by a dog. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Safety Around Dogs have good resources on dog bite prevention.
Another strategy is to communicate with neighbors where you know there is a concern about loose or scary dogs. Let the neighbors know the hours when students walk or bike to school and simply ask them to keep their dogs fenced or leashed during those times can make a big difference. In the event that there is an ongoing problem with a loose or scary dog, consider reporting the situation to your local animal control department. There are also things that can be done on a policy level. Some communities have formal or informal ordinances regarding dogs, such as a 24/7 leash law.
d. Gangs and neighborhood crime
A gang is an ongoing criminal organization or association of three or more people who have a common name, sign, symbol or color and whose members engage in violent or illegal behavior. Neighborhood crime could include robbery, physical attack or threat of physical attack, and drug-dealing. To combat neighborhood gangs and crime, engage community stakeholders as partners in creating a safe environment around the school. This can include area businesses, child care centers, churches, and senior or community centers near the school. Local law enforcement agencies are important partners to involve as well. School Resource Officers or Community Police Officers can be called on to help foster personal security among parents and children on their route to school. They can also be called on to present at PTA meetings or to students in the classroom.
In neighborhoods where crime is an issue, Walking School Buses and Bike Trains can help. The adult supervisor can help with traffic safety and watch out for any suspicious activity. Also, trusted neighborhood residents can be alerted to when kids are walking to or from school and asked to stand in their yards at that time, adding more watchful eyes to the street. Finally, parents can work with their children to identify safe places to go to in the event that something happens on the route to or from school.
A helpful resource is the National Center for Safe Routes to School Guide to Personal Security. Models for addressing this include the Safe Passage Programs.
Should I be concerned about stranger abduction on the route to school?
Although stranger abduction gets a tremendous amount of media attention, it is actually a very rare event. See the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center for more information on non-family abduction. When families plan the route to school and use solutions mentioned above such as the Walking School Bus and partnering with local law enforcement, it is highly unlikely that children would be vulnerable to a stranger abduction. Parents should teach their children to “yell, run, and tell” (an adult) if confronted with unwanted attention from a stranger, just as they would for bullying.
Is there a correct adult to student ratio for Walking School Buses or Bike Trains?
The answer to this question will depend on the size of the group and the age of the students. It is a good idea to have a discussion with the school administration about what their expectations are for adult supervision on any planned Walking School Buses or Bike Trains. It is also helpful to ask parents in advance if their child will participate, so the event coordinators will know how many students to prepare for and be able to provide parents the event logistics. If the Walking School Bus group will be large, it is advisable to have at least two adult chaperones walk with the group. For Bike Trains, the need for adult supervision is even greater since there is the potential need to ride with students of various biking abilities on the street. It is recommended that there is at least one adult bicyclist leading the group (the engineer), and another adult bicyclist bringing up the rear of the group to ensure safety (the caboose). Note: All adult bicyclists are highly encouraged to wear a helmet, as they are role models for the students. All students are required by law to wear a helmet.
Why should I register our Walk to School Day event on the International Walk to School Day website?
By registering your event online you are letting the world know that your community is walking. Registered users have access to a variety of downloadable materials, including templates for printing stickers, certificates, a frequent walker punch card and new puzzles. Registrants also receive a weekly e-newsletter for six weeks in September and October with tips and resources on holding a Walk to School event.
We had our first Walk to School Day event this year and not very many students participated. What can we do to improve participation?
If there was a planning committee for the first event, convene the group and ask how they thought the planning process went, what the barriers to student participation were and what can be done better for future events. Getting their feedback may ensure that you have their support for the next time around. Was it because there simply wasn’t enough time to plan for the event? Was it because it wasn’t promoted well? Was it due to parent concerns about safety – if so what issues are parents most worried about? Once these questions are answered, you may get a better idea for how to improve planning for the next Walk to School event at your school. Consider looking at the Timeline and Steps for Event Planning to get some new ideas.
How do I get the local media involved?
The media can help spread the word about Walk to School events. When media cover your event, they help spread the word of the great health, safety, environmental and social benefits of more children walking to school every day. In the resources section, you will find media advisories, press releases, public service announcements and detailed instructions on how to use these tools and the additional information provided, all provided by the International Walk to School Day website.
Our school has a ban on students bicycling to and from school, therefore kids who might bike on a Walk to School day can’t participate. What steps can we take to change this?
Policies that ban bicycling usually have to do with: preventing bicycle theft at poor bike racks, reactions to parent anger connected with student bicycle injury accidents near schools, or high volume arterials immediately adjacent to schools.
Start by meeting with the school principal to listen to his/her concerns and introduce/discuss active transportation options as a potential solution for drop-off and pick-up traffic congestion. Inquire as to why the policy is in place – is it a hold over from old leadership, or are there real safety concerns that can potentially be addressed? Often principals have so much on their plate that it is easier to just drop bicycling instead of addressing safety and security issues. Since bicycling to school is a relatively low percentage of the transportation mode split at most schools, there are not usually enough students or parents willing to make it an issue with the principal.
Show the principal the parent letter, Getting your Child to and from School Safely. This will help to introduce the concept of all the different transportation options, including walking and bicycling. Mention the co-benefits of active transportation including physical activity, students arriving “ready to learn,” environmental impacts and congestion mitigation; be sure to choose which co-benefit(s) will resonate with the principal. Consider introducing the idea of the Walking School Bus. Over time, if the school sees that the Walking School Bus works, the concept of Bike Trains can be introduced. If there is parental support around reversing the ban on bicycling, be sure to mention that. When a principal sees that there is parental support around an issue, they are more likely to support it. For more detailed information on this topic, please see the National Center for Safe Routes to School tipsheet titled, School Bicycling and Walking Policies: Addressing Policies that Hinder and Implementing Policies that Help
Should children be encouraged to bicycle on the sidewalk or the street?
There is not a straightforward answer to this question. In some communities sidewalks are non-existent and riding in the street is the only option. Other communities may not have designated bike routes, therefore parents may prefer that their children ride on the sidewalk.
Riding in the street is generally the safest place to ride, where bicycles are expected to follow the same rules of the road as motorists and ride in the same direction as traffic. However, children less than 10 years old are generally not mature enough to make the decisions necessary to safely ride in the street, especially without adult supervision.
For anyone riding on a sidewalk:
- Check the law in your jurisdiction to make sure sidewalk riding is allowed. Some cities have local ordinances that prohibit riding a bike on sidewalks in commercial districts, or on any sidewalk within the city limits.
- Watch for vehicles coming in and out of driveways.
- Stop to look for cars before crossing. It is also a good idea to make eye contact with drivers before crossing intersections.
- Cross streets at corners and not from between parked cars.
- Alert pedestrians before you pass, i.e. say “Passing on your left” or use a bell or horn. Also, slow down and give extra space when passing.
The important thing is to get children “street ready”. The graduation from simply being able to ride with ease (i.e. braking, turning, and navigating hills) and being confident with street rules takes a lot of practice and diligence. Initial adult supervised practice should happen on quiet streets or sidewalks. Adults should walk alongside a child bicycling and talk about street rules and emphasize the importance of being safe. Once children gain confidence on quiet streets and sidewalks, they can begin riding on the street with adult supervision. Parents know their children best, however it is recommended that children age 10 and younger are always supervised by an adult while bicycling on the street. Note: All adult bicyclists are highly encouraged to wear a helmet, as they are role models for children. All children are required by law to wear a helmet.
How can crossing guards enhance our Walk to School event?
Crossing guards can act as added protection for children at controlled intersections and are vital at uncontrolled crosswalks. Many schools have a budget to hire crossing guards and police can provide assistance in training. Some schools organize volunteer crossing guards where funding is not available. Retired people often enjoy volunteering to help children cross the street. Even if crossing guards are volunteers, they should be trained. For training information, contact the American Automobile Association (AAA). Their resources include a brochure and video for training crossing guards. Some schools implement student crossing guard programs, with strict precautions for student safety.