An Awful Message to Kids: Stay in School (but get there in a car)

I was flabbergasted when a commenter on one of my Flickr photos back in April told me about an elementary school in San Jose which had (at the behest of the SJPD) instructed parents that bicycles “are not allowed as a means of transportation to or from school,” apparently because traffic patterns around the school were considered too dangerous. And I was flabbergasted again today when I read a post at Streetsblog about a family in Saratoga Springs who were confronted by school officials (and a state trooper who happened to be on the scene) when they defied a ban on students walking or biking to a local middle school.

I don’t have too much to add to the Streetsblog post, so I won’t go on a lengthy rant, but these stories are symptomatic of how schizophrenic our culture is right now when it comes to transportation. On the one hand, we hear a lot from politicians up the entire food chain from city councilmembers to President Obama about encouraging people to walk and bike in order to be more healthy, burn less petroleum, and pollute less. And sometimes they even put our money where their mouths are, installing bike lanes, improving streetscapes to be more pedestrian-friendly, funding new mass transit lines, and so on.

On the other hand, we have a culture that has been built around the assumption that everyone will always drive cars everywhere. That culture is reflected both in the physical design of our towns and cities, and in the mindset of the vast majority of policymakers, including many of those who pay lip service to “green” issues. People making these decisions in school districts from California to New York are presumably worried—with good reason—about the prospect of a kid getting hit by a car on the way to school, but instead of taking steps to make routes to school safer for people on bikes, their solution is simply to ban bikes. This is like dealing with violent crime by banning citizens from leaving their homes, while doing nothing to stop the people who are committing the violence.

Not only is the solution backwards, but it also contributes to a terrible public health problem. The CDC reports that childhood obesity rates more than doubled among kids aged 6-11 in just 20 years, and more than tripled among kids aged 12 to 19. Lack of adequate physical activity is one of the major causes of this increase, and childhood obesity can lead to any number of medical problems. In the face of this public health crisis, it is literally a sign of deep sickness in our culture that schools are discouraging kids from walking and biking to school, instead of doing whatever they can to encourage kids to bike to school (traffic mitigation, separated bike paths, school-sponsored “bikepools” and “walkpools” that would get kids to travel to school with other nearby kids in order to keep them safer, and so on).

I’m not totally naive, and I know that most parents will still want to drive their kids to school, either out of convenience or out of a fear of traffic or abduction. But a change in culture and mindset on these issues doesn’t require that everyone, or even most people, start sending their kids to school on foot or on a bike. All it requires, at least as a first step that could be taken immediately, is that we start making it easier for parents who want to do this, instead of treating them as pariahs or criminals who should be reported to Child Protective Services.

6 Responses to “An Awful Message to Kids: Stay in School (but get there in a car)”

  1. eric says:

    THis problem is widespread. My son walked to school by himself for the first time the other day. He’s 9, and we live in a pretty safe neighborhood with crossing guards. I have never seen any other kid under the age of 11 or 12 walking to his school, and the school (a private quaker school) told us that in order for him to walk home by himself, they would require a signed consent form. Of course, most of the public school kids walk (hence the crossing guards).

    In the NY Times article the other day about this issue, the parents seemed to be more worried about abduction than about cars–a weird displacement of their real anxieties, which I now think I will never really understand. It is crazy. I am pleased to see you use the phrase “deep sickness in our culture.”

  2. dc says:

    Interesting that most of the public school kids walk. That’s clearly not true at the schools in Saratoga Springs and San Jose, but those schools are presumably in much less urban neighborhoods than yours. A fair number of kids seem to walk to the elementary school a block from my apartment, mostly accompanied by a parent. Those families, and dog walkers, probably account for the majority of people I see walking anywhere in my neighborhood.

  3. wordnerd says:

    I was riding in Needham (a Boston suburb) past an elementary school on Central Ave., which is pretty busy with fast cars, and I saw the standard large yellow sign SLOW / SCHOOL AHEAD. Underneath it was an equally official sign: CAUTION / BIKES IN ROAD. Wow!

  4. dc says:

    And did the fast cars become slower cars, or did they just ignore the signs? We have “share the road” signs all over the place here, but some drivers still honk if they get “stuck” behind me in the right-hand lane, or shout things like “get your ass off the road” as they swerve around me. I think I might start contributing $10 to pro-bike organizations each time a driver does something like that—it’s probably a more effective long-term strategy than trying to engage the drivers in a discussion about bicycle rights when I catch up to them at the next red light (which often happens, and which amuses me greatly whenever it does).

  5. wordnerd says:

    I was the only bike in sight, so no one slowed down. (I’m not having a good week. An hour earlier a Mercedes SUV pulled out of a side street and almost wiped me out. The driver was very apologetic. Yesterday, when I got doored and went flying the best the door opener could do was claim he’d never done it before.) But I think the sign is evidence that kids are welcome to ride to this school.

  6. Bettie Swayne says:

    […] I explained why I’m not really a gamer […]LikeLike

Leave a Reply