School Kid Flag Crossing Jefferson

Walk to School Day 2018: Our Streets Are Broken

October 10 is Walk to School Day 2018. Per the official web site:

International Walk to School Day is a global event that involves communities from more than 40 countries walking and biking to school on the same day. It began in 1997 as a one-day event. Over time, this event has become part of a movement for year-round safe routes to school and a celebration – with record breaking participation – each October. Today, thousands of schools across America – from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico – participate every October.

Minnesota has 208 schools walking.

Now, for a little perspective:

  • Minnesota has 327 public school districts.
  • There are 2,079 public schools covering the range of PK-12 in some split.
  • 1,220 schools are explicitly PK-8.

(Minnesota Department of Education stats)

So, 208 schools walking? That’s 10%. The number looks slightly better on the PK-8 split, but… 10%?

It would be nice to believe that the reason so few schools participate is because the idea of walking to school is so common that a day specifically for it is sillypants. Only, I don’t believe that. In rural areas, of course, walking may not occur because school attendance zones are large by nature. Rural densities do not make for walkable schools.

But in suburbs? It’s bad design. It’s godawful design, really.

No school in my district is listed. And I can easily tell you why.

A new PK-4 school opened in my district this year. It is labeled A on the below map. Red lines represent district boundaries, and the splits represent the boundaries for each elementary (there are 3, but only one middle and one high school).

Attendance Boundaries Spring Lake Park

As you can see, the elementary is on the north side of the boundaries for its attendance, and hugs district boundaries. It is also near zero housing whatsoever in a practical way. I have applied MS Paint labels to the below map to show the majesty of this school’s placement:

Can't Walk This

The nearest housing is the Blaine International Village. It, however, is in a different school district. There is the NSC, Blaine Soccer Complex, a brewpub, and an airport nearby. There is a strip mall – you could walk to elementary school from the Chipotle, and if you drop your kids off, a Caribou drive-through is close at hand. 105th has a sidepath, but mostly on the north side of 105th, and the school is on the south side. The school is also technically far closer to Davenport St NE, which is a sidewalk-free zone, one lane in each direction, no room for bikes, 40MPH speed limit.

To be a little fair, this school amounts to infill for the district, and the available land plots were really lacking all the way through. They had a choice of “behind the Menards” (allegedly, “Centerview” is not because you see a strip mall shopping center, but it’s the main view from the school playground), or “next to the gun range.” Totally not kidding about that second option. Of course, this is also in a city that decided to reject Safe Routes funding because neighbors were concerned that sidewalks = hooliganism. The school is an expression of the lack of planning for any mode aside from car in Blaine.

The attendance area north of this elementary on the first map is theoretical – there is no housing there. It’s more soccer fields. Almost all of the attending school area is south of 100th, and even more of it below US10 on the map. MN65 through the area is an unwalkable (and bike-unfriendly) mess.

This isn’t uncommon. Even in cities, while Danger Girl bikes, busing and car lines remain much more common:

Back in the 1960s, about half of all kids in the US biked or walked to school. While the above chart is several years old, the trend hasn’t changed.

Walk to School Day is a cute idea. But it just highlights how unusual letting kids walk is, and how hard we make it to walk anywhere, regardless of age.

It’s easy to say, “but Julie, you’re choosing to live somewhere unwalkable!” Statistics show it’s not just because I live in the ABCs. Throughout the state, our built environment — buildings, streets, parks, and other man-made physical surroundings — affect our choices for walking and biking. Our choices of where to live can be influenced by school academic quality, proximity of family, employment and other factors — not all of which can be controlled as variables at the individual level.

We need housing built near things people want to go to, like schools, built with sidewalks. This is not impossible in suburbs, let alone cities.

Let’s do that, and celebrate walking to school every day.

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!