Wednesday is Walk to School Day, an effort by the National Center for Safe Routes to School that encourages communities to make walking to school safer and more appealing to kids and their families.
As of Monday, nearly 5,000 schools across the country had signed up to take part in Wednesday’s effort, said center spokesperson Kara Lusk Dudley. There are a number of benefits to letting kids walk to school, she said: “It shows kids the importance of staying active, and it gets their day started off well.”
While Wednesday focuses on walking to school, the center encourages kids to bike to school as well. And while many parents like the idea of having kids walk or bike to school, they have real concerns about safety.
Megan Odette — a District resident whose family doesn’t own a car and who has organized group bike rides for kid and parents for years — understands that trepidation. She’s had some close calls as a cyclist, and she’s even been hit by a car at a four-way stop sign. Still, her family maintains their car-free lifestyle, and her sons, ages 5 and 8, walk to school each day.
“For us, the benefits of living walking distance to schools — getting them that extra exercise and the little things that we discover along the way — are still outweighing our concerns about the dangers of using the sidewalks and streets in D.C.,” she said.
When Odette’s children were younger, she said, she’d give them some freedom on the walk to school, but within limits. She’d choose a landmark on their way — say a fire hydrant or lamp post — and tell them they could run as fast as they wanted to that point. Once they got to that landmark, they would then have to stop and wait to cross a street together.
“They really enjoyed having that little moment of freedom, but by giving them that limit, I helped them stay safe,” she said.
Other communities developed strategies such as forming a “bike bus” or pedestrian “school bus,” in which families meet up at given points on the way to school. The group grows in size as each child meets them along the way. It’s a great way to get people in the habit of walking to school, Odette said.
“Walking in a big group of kids is incredible fun,” she said.
Another parent with safety concerns is Casey Anderson, Montgomery County’s Planning Board chair. His son, now in high school, has been biking to school on his own for years, and currently rides 7 miles each way.
“Everybody has to make the judgement for themselves,” Anderson said. “I worry about him, but I know that he is educated and responsible about how he rides his bike.” Montgomery County has made real strides in making roads safer for bikes and pedestrians, he said, but still “has a long way to go.”
The D.C. area has a number of schools that will participate. Of the 346 schools signed up in Virginia, 110 are in Fairfax County. In Maryland, 37 of the 75 schools ready to get kids to walk to classes were in Montgomery County. And D.C. has 25 schools listed as taking part.
The National Center for Safe Routes to School initiated the “Vision Zero for Youth” campaign in 2016 when it connected Walk to School day with efforts in communities to reduce the number of people injured and killed on the nation’s roadways.
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