It's good for kids and the environment. So why aren't more students walking to school?
Watch students converge on many suburban schools in the morning and you'll see some walkers, a posse of buses and an inevitable car line stretching down the street.
It wasn't always that way, Federal Highway Administration data shows.
In 1969, 42% of kids walked or biked to school and just 16% arrived in private vehicles. Come 2017, that ratio flipped with 54% of children being dropped off by car and just 10.4% on foot or bikes, according to the National Household Travel Survey.
What happened to walking to school? The shift started when new subdivisions sprouted up in older towns, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning's Victoria Barrett explained.
More families caused crowded schools, which many districts solved by building new ones on affordable land on the outskirts of towns.
"It made schools more auto-oriented," said Barrett, a senior transportation planner. "Access by cars was made easier and faster with big drop-off points. Parents have been encouraged to bring their child/children as close to the door as possible, which really is counterintuitive to the benefits of walking before a long school day,
"It also increases the risks to the children who are on foot and on bicycle by increasing traffic volumes near school entry points."
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages walking or biking to school when possible because it contributes to the 60 minutes of physical exercise kids need daily, combats the obesity epidemic in children and reduces air pollution.
"Walking to school, if it's safe and doable, is a bit of a no-brainer," said Dr. Alison Tothy, a Chicago-area pediatric emergency medicine specialist.
Walking with your kids to school is also a perfect opportunity to instill basic safety skills, Lake County sheriff's Lt. Michael Keller said.
On the way, parents should point out concerns and offer solutions, he advised. "For instance, 'Cars backing out of driveways may not see you -- so you should stop if you see a car backing out.'"
For first-timers, Barrett recommends scouting the route beforehand to gauge timing and hazards.
If your schedule doesn't allow daily walking, once a week or once a month is still worth it, experts say. Barrett also suggests teaming up with neighbors who walk.
"When you teach children walking and biking are safe, effective, fun modes of transportation, you're really cultivating the next generation of travelers," she said.
When is it safe for kids to walk solo? In general, adults should accompany children until they are around age 10, authorities like Keller and Tothy recommend.
Younger children typically can't judge how quickly a car is approaching and how far away it is, Tothy said.
But there's more to it than age, she noted.
"You have to be able to follow rules. You have to be able to pay attention to your surroundings and know if you're in a safe environment," Tothy said. "Not all kids are able or ready to do that."
The National Center for Safe Routes to School, which offers resources and links for parents, annually grades states on their efforts. Illinois does a good job at distributing funding for safety projects but falls short in offering a comprehensive plan for young pedestrians, a 2022 report concluded.
Local entities vary greatly on guidance for walkers. The city of Naperville and Elmhurst Unit District 205 provide detailed maps online, while Elgin U-46's student handbook offers safety tips.
Encouraging walking is a win-win, Naperville Traffic Engineer Andy Hynes said.
"A lot of our older schools in older neighborhoods aren't really set up for a lot of pickups and drop-offs," Hynes said. "The more kids that can walk helps with traffic in surrounding neighborhoods, and there's the health aspect."
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