Why don’t more kids walk to school? Distance & fear

A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that the number of American children who walked or biked to school dropped by 70% (from 41% to just 13%) between 1969 and 2001.  It found that the distance to school (which had increased during those 32 years) had “the strongest influence” on this decision.

Parental fear of abduction played a prominent role in keeping kids from walking/biking to school, along with convenience, the danger posed by other parents dropping their kids off at school, minimal focus on pedestrian and cycling safety in car-centric urban planning, and social (and sometimes legal) pressure to have children under constant supervision until the age of 12.



Not much can be done about distance to schools in rural areas and small towns.  In these low density areas there aren’t enough students to put a school within walking/biking distance.  Many of the students have to travel along highways to get to and from school.

The situation is different in urban and densely populated suburban areas.  There school size is the primary factor in the distance between home and school.  Funding governments put pressure on school boards to build large schools spaced far apart and to close smaller schools within walking/biking distance to student homes on the questionable assumption that large schools provide better learning at lower costs.  While there is dispute about the operating cost savings of a large school compared to a smaller one, there is no doubt that closing schools in a city can generate several millions of dollars per acre from the sale of school land to a developer.

Unfortunately the pressure to generate one-time money to meet keep taxes low rarely takes into account the long-term economic and health-related costs of obesity and other medical conditions of decreased childhood physical activity.

School boards with K-8 schools create the same school-home distance for 4-year-old JK students and 12-year-old Grade 8 students: 1.6km (1 mile).  Even with adult supervision this is too far for the small legs and insatiable curiousity of most children younger than 6 to walk.  In those areas  This creates a hard-to-break habit in parents and children of driving to and from school.  Since their younger siblings are being driven, older children who would otherwise be able to walk to school tag along for the ride.

One solution: K – 3 schools – It is impractical to put a K – 8 school within 1 km (1000 yds) of all homes.  In most places there wouldn’t be enough students to justify the specialized classrooms and teachers needed in senior elementary grades.

Available land can also present an obstacle to creating a dense network of K – 8 schools.  Where pre-teens need playing fields for organized team sports, their younger siblings need mostly small play areas in which to run around.  Kids younger than 10-years typically play even team sports in a disorganized manner.  They move more slowly and collisions, when they occur, cause little damage to brains and limbs.  A K – 8 school needs at least 4 acres of land, and larger gyms and cafeterias; a K – 3 school needs less than an acre and smaller specialized spaces such as gyms.

This much smaller footprint per student means that K – 3 schools can be put onto sites as small as 1 acre, or even within an office or apartment complex.  It also means that instead of a school board selling complete 3+ acre school sites to raise funds, they can sell all but one acre for development, and retain a K – 3 site.  This would increase the density of the school network, making it more likely that even young children would be more likely to walk or bike to school.  It would also allow greater flexibility to meet the demands for a local school as the demographics of the surrounding neighbourhood changes, as it will inevitably do in a city.



The odds of an American dying in a car crash are 1 in 114, of choking to death 1 in 3,461, of dying after being bitten by a dog 1 in 112,400.  The odds of a US child being kidnapped by a stranger?  About 1 in 300,000.

TV shows and movies feature many more stories of child abductions by strangers than they do sexual assaults by family members or friends, even though the latter is many times more common.  News stories about a child abduction by a stranger are featured extensively on cable news and can go viral.  Urgent “amber alerts” related to custody-related abduction seem to be associated with a stranger rather than by a parent.  This coverage, along with hyperbolic marketing from organizations that benefit from the fear of child abductions, sticks in parent’s minds.  Even after they are shown the statistics, the elevated fear of stranger abduction sticks.

In contrast, stories about the long-term benefits of walking to school on a child’s physical fitness, mental health, learning, confidence, independence, and judgement are dry and undramatic.  People, particularly parents of young children, tend to pay more attention to possible danger than to almost certain gain.  Given this natural trait, it is hard for reality to dislodge the fear of letting a child walk or bike to school.



This map of the areas where four generations of a single English family were allowed to roam at age 8 was part of a presentation by Dr. Mark Tremblay of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.