Childhood Obesity and the Walking School Bus

It's not a walking school bus

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked into the question of how many American kids walked to school in 1969, as compared to the year 2001. Their report starts off,

Thirty years ago, the sight of children walking or biking to school was common. In fact, nearly 90% of children who lived within a mile of school used active transportation (i.e., walking or bicycling) as their primary mode of travel.

By 2001, that figure was down to 62%. And for kids who lived more than a mile but under two miles from school, the percentage dipped to a mere 18%. Apparently, the distance makes a big difference, along with the other factors of traffic danger, bad weather conditions, and fear of crime.

The assumption is made that walking to school would reduce childhood obesity, and solutions have been suggested, including a return to the old-fashioned setup with smaller schools in neighborhoods, rather than large centralized schools that are not even truly centralized but built on the outskirts of a city. It sounds like a great idea, but, of course, many more things must be taken into consideration when schools are built or relocated.

Meanwhile, how about this idea? The walking school bus is endorsed and described here by the U.S. Department of Transportation, via the Partnership for a Walkable America:

A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults. If that sounds simple, it is, and that’s part of the beauty of the walking school bus. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school to as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable and a regularly rotated schedule of trained volunteers.

This very useful guide gives specific instructions for each step of implementing such a program in one’s own neighborhood, including the crucial first one: find out if anybody else is interested. Connect with parents, kids, the school hierarchy, law enforcement, and anybody else who might support or participate in the plan; and especially with anybody who feels like they would be negatively impacted by a walking school bus. It’s amazing sometimes, the toes we step on unawares. Better to know it sooner than later.

Then, figure out the route and details like how far a child might walk alone before joining up with the gang, and other details. These folks recommend that the adults experimentally walk the route first. But, in many cases, this alone could be a deterrent. Child care is a never-ending problem for many parents, especially single ones. Why not do the experimental walk on a non-school day, and bring the kids along? Make it a community outing, and then, if the route is unsuitable and the group has to detour or turn back, nobody will be late for school.

Should a parent pushing a child in a stroller be acceptable as one of the responsible adults who take turns conducting the walking school bus? Because if, during the journey, another child is in danger or has some kind of need, that adult already has plenty enough responsibility with their own baby in a stroller.

What about dogs and kids who are scared of them even behind a fence? Should the responsible parents bring along their own household pets? Or is that a distraction and a danger because of the unwanted attention from strange dogs?

Should the group agree that adults must be unencumbered? Should the group insist that every parent know CPR? Or carry a cell phone? What if a parent decides it’s a good idea to walk armed with a pistol? You know, protecting the kids. Obviously, a lot of the factors would vary according to the neighborhood.

It may be that responsibility for other people’s children is a top-priority parent nightmare. Even in your own backyard, with food and games for distraction, a crowd of birthday party kids can be hard to manage. Out in the open, it’s frightening. What if one of them has a seizure, or two of them get in a fight? Should the volunteers be required to take a special training course? Should everybody sign waivers agreeing not to sue any of the other parents? (This organization, by the way, offers a page of guidelines in PDF for talking about safety to children who may be new to this pedestrian concept.)

A National Public Radio story by Bobbie O’Brien adds more details, from a walking school bus project in Florida, whose initiation was founded on childhood obesity concerns. The reporter quotes Annie Schwartz, who says,

Walking makes sense. Walking is convenient. We get to chat. We get to see the people that we know in the neighborhood.

On the other hand, Cornell University economist John Cawley has little use for the walking school bus. He told journalist Ted Boscia,

… a study of ‘walking school buses,’ a popular approach that encourages children and adults to walk to school together, found the program to be ineffective… The ‘walking school bus’ sounds like a neat idea, but it doesn’t increase kids’ physical activity or prevent obesity.

An article by Bob Shaw relates the history of the Safe Routes to School program. He writes,

From 2005 through 2010, it was funded for $820 million. Safe Routes gives grants for anything that encourages walking or biking to school — mostly sidewalks, safer street crossings and education. The grants have gone to 11,000 schools in all 50 states.

The results? Not encouraging, and it’s worth taking a look at Shaw’s very comprehensive reporting to see why. And what does Eric A. Morris, of Freakonomics fame, say about the relationship between walking to school and the childhood obesity epidemic?

Overall, to date the evidence does not support the claim that those who walk and bike to school are in any better shape. However, there are probably other benefits from walking and biking. Active travel to school has been replaced not by school bus riding but by travel in private cars, the share of which has risen from less than 20% in 1969 to about 55% today. All those cars are burning fuel and creating emissions, including in the immediate vicinity of schools, suggesting that having kids get to school on foot or by bike would benefit the environment.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Then and Now — Barriers and Solutions,”, 02/25/08
Source: “Walking School Bus,”, 2005
Source: “Florida Town Tries Walking School Bus Project,” NPR, 09/21/09
Source: “In the battle against childhood obesity, review effectiveness before implementing policies, says Cornell economist,” Cornell Chronicle, 03/04/10
Source: “Fewer Students Walk to School,” MPR News, 10/01/11
Source: “The Vanishing Walk to School,” Freakonomics, 09/19/11
Image by wonderferret, used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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