The Walking School Bus: A Safe and Active Way to Get Kids to School

Aug 26, 2014, 1:23 PM

With research indicating that fewer children are walking or biking to school than in decades past—and with the childhood obesity epidemic in full swing—health experts have been brainstorming solutions that would address both issues. In recent years, a simple but effective concept has been gaining traction at the grass-roots level: Why not organize a “Walking School Bus”—a group of kids who walk to school with one or more adults, so that kids can get exercise on their way to and from school?

A Walking School Bus is “just like a regular school bus, but without the walls and seats, and instead of wheels, we use our feet,” explained LeeAnne Fergason, education director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Ore., which has a thriving Walking School Bus program. Other communities around the country that have well-established Walking School Bus programs include Chapel Hill, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; Burlington, Vt.; Columbia, Mo.; and Duluth, Ga. In the Fall of 2014, many more schools—including Grand View Elementary in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; Greenacres Elementary in Scarsdale, N.Y.; Madison Elementary in Redondo Beach, Calif.; and several elementary schools in Spokane, Wash.—will be joining the trend.

Created by the National Center for Safe Routes to School, these programs help kids sneak some extra physical activity into their day while also addressing parents’ concerns about getting their kids to school safely. It can be as simple as a few neighborhood families taking turns walking their kids to school. Or it can be more elaborate, with prearranged routes, timetables and stops along the way to pick up more “passengers”; with this model, there’s usually an adult “driver” at the front and an adult “conductor” bringing up the rear. A variation on this theme, the bicycle train, in which two or more adults accompany and supervise kids as they ride their bikes to school, has also become popular.

Viewed as a way to fight childhood obesity, improve school attendance rates and ensure that kids get to school safely, the Walking School Bus concept is garnering positive reviews from public health experts. In July 2013, Michelle Obama voiced her support of these programs in her remarks to mayors gathered at the White House.

“I've heard more and more of this kind of walking school bus happening all over the country—so that kids can get exercise on the way to school, kind of like we did when we were growing up," she said. “It’s about people all across this country coming together to take action to support the health of our kids.”

Besides providing an opportunity for movement, the Walking School Bus also allows kids to socialize with their peers, gain a bit of independence and learn important road safety skills. All of these benefits are also important for children’s health and wellbeing.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.