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!

21 thoughts on “Walk to School Day 2018: Our Streets Are Broken

  1. Tom Quinn

    “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.”

    This is hard to do in places like St. Paul where the concept of a neighborhood school disappeared years ago. It’s all about being transported to some far-flung school, out of the reach of walking or safely biking.

    1. Roger's Neighbor

      It’s not impossible. but it requires that we let children living in neighborhoods go to the schools that already exist in their neighborhoods, instead of bussing them across the city It mildly irritates me when I see elementary school kids lined up for a school bus that will transport them somewhere else, instead of the local school that exists a few blocks away, which would’ve had children walking or riding bicycles to the school in past times.

      1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

        It’s just not as simple as blaming parents and saying it’s “all about being transported to some far-flung school” or prescribing that every attends a local school. As I wrote about last year (https://streets.mn/2017/09/13/beyond-the-big-yellow-bus/) there are tons of really complicated reasons why children don’t walk or bike to school.

        One of the parents in my article intentionally moved close to the school they wanted, but her children can’t walk alone because of dangerous intersections and she can’t walk with them because both parents work. The bus took about an hour to take her son two miles!

        In St Paul, if children need day care it often works to not have the children in a neighborhood school so they can get bussing. I describe how it plays out in the article so I won’t re-write it here, but day care choices at 3 months old can impact school and transportation five years later. I know school transportation options were the last thing on my mind when I was choosing infant day care.

        1. Julie Kosbab Post author

          Also, just as there are vestiges of red-lining and covenant-laden pasts in housing, those vestiges also show up in “neighborhood schools.”

          The suburbs, despite being built on covenants and flight, have similar trends when you look at neighborhood schools. My district had 2 neighborhood elementaries (now 3), and a magnet. The economic differential and assumptions between the elementaries was real – the school on the south end had roughly 4x the reduced/free lunch eligibility.

          You can see similar things in other suburbs – I believe Eden Prairie had a kerfuffle about changing attendance zones at one point, because it would have moved some kids from the “rich” school to the “not so rich” school.

        2. Tom Quinn

          Dana, I was not blaming parents. The system is St. Paul is such that it is common to not be able to send your children to the closest neighborhood school because there are racial quotas.

          1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

            There are not racial quotas. Here is the district’s policy regarding school selection: https://www.spps.org/Domain/12467

            From the policy:
            “Community School Zone
            These zones apply to all elementary students. Priority is given to students who live within a school’s Community School Zone so that as many students as possible from that neighborhood are enrolled in the school.

            Reflecting Saint Paul
            This admission priority is based on residential addresses in high-need neighborhoods, which are defined by the proportion of residents eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; proportion of residents with a home language other than English; and reading/math proficiency rates of students in those neighborhoods.

            Up to 25 percent of available seats in certain low-poverty schools will be set aside for students residing in these neighborhoods.

            The current list of low-poverty schools includes: Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented, Chelsea Heights Elementary, EXPO Elementary, Groveland Park Elementary, Horace Mann School, Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy, J.J. Hill Montessori, L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion (Lower and Upper Campus), Nokomis Montessori (South Campus), Randolph Heights Elementary, and St. Anthony Park Elementary. For more information, please call the Student Placement Center at 651-632-3760.”

            So, up to 25 percent of slots in a few schools that have had under-representation of children from poor neighborhoods will be reserved for children from those neighborhoods. Five are magnate schools popular with middle class families and six are community schools also popular with the middle class that are in wealthier neighborhoods that border poorer neighborhoods.

            Although (unfortunately) poverty and test scores correlate to race (thanks, racism!) there are no “racial quotas.” They are giving children from disadvantaged neighborhoods the opportunity to get into schools they have been traditionally excluded from.

            1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

              So, out of 42 elementary schools (policy only applies to elementary), 11 have a policy to reserve 25 percent of slots for children from particular neighborhoods. Hardly seems like that’s the biggest barrier to going a neighborhood school, especially considering families get priority for their community schools.

              Child care needs, fear of strangers/perceived & real needs for supervision, and lack of safe walking infrastructure all seem like bigger drivers.

              For example, we found child care for my son within walking distance of our house (half mile). When he started pre-k at our community school (five blocks), we were able to walk or bike one way and we were lucky that his day care was across a major road so he could get bussed there in the afternoon.

              Another family lived three blocks from the day care and on the same block as their community school. They had to enroll their child in a school farther away because no one was available to walk him the three blocks between school and day care. A four-year old cannot walk to school alone.

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                I’m rather counting on our kid being able to go to the neighborhood school, because I want to be able to take her by bike until she’s big enough to walk or bike herself.

                But we’ve already had discussions about pre-school (which we really need to get on), with a strong recommendation for a place in St. Paul. I’m going to have to find a better alternative or risk losing that argument. If we can find something between us and downtown, we can at least avoid some miles driving even if we can’t always bike or walk.

                The kid loves buses, though, so maybe that adds some options.

                1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

                  St Paul provides public preschool at many of it’s elementary schools. Your Pre-K school can be really important because you get priority for that school for kindergarten.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      My kid wants to bike to school, and I’m actually okay with it. He’s biked nearly the whole route before. I’m looking forward to the inevitable call from school about it being “dangerous!!!”

      But he doesn’t want to ride on Wednesdays, because he has to bring his French horn and he doesn’t want me to hook up a cargo trailer for it. Ha!

      1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

        I’ve been pleased that no one has said anything about my son biking to school. I didn’t think anyone would comment when he left directly from school, but was curious about days when he has activities. He also goes to a small school and all the staff know us and know we live close by.

        1. Julie Kosbab Post author

          My kid’s middle school is on the street that rejected Safe Routes funds for a sidewalk. The biggest hazard on said street are car line parents, as the school buses come out a bus-only exit and most don’t use that street as an exit point.

          It’s a shitty street to walk, but biking isn’t bad.

  2. Monte Castleman

    Back when I went to public school in Bloomington in the 1980s, everyone that lived close enough to walk did so. The whole line of parents dropping off kids that exists now. Either you walked (or rode your bicycle if the weather was nice, or you took a bus).
    The streets of Bloomington are broken for walking now and they were even more so back then (With the walking radius of the school there were crossing guards to help walk across the death roads) So broken streets aren’t the reason kids aren’t walk

    1) Putting kids on buses going to far flung corners of the city for no other reason than to mess around with demographics, combined with the new concept of magnet schools which draw from all over the city. In Bloomington in the 1980s essentially no one went to school outside their neighborhood district boundaries for any reason

    2) More families have cars available, and we’ve grown accustomed to increasing levels of comfort in our culture.

    3) Helicopter parenting / parental paranoia. Even if crime has gone down, the fear of crime keeps going up. There’s a lot of people afraid to let their kids walk alone, afraid to visit the city. They put up security cameras, call the police over anyone that looks “suspicious”, look nervously at online crime reports wondering how long it will be until they get victimized. In my day my parents told me to not take rides from strangers and let me go off alone around the neighborhood. They’d drop me off at soccer practice and then leave until it was time to pick me up..

    1. Rosa

      the closest school to us is in easy walking distance, but our street (Bloomington Avenue) is considered so unsafe to cross, people on my side of it get bused to that school anyway. The option of somehow forcing cars to safely stop (even at 35th & Bloomington, where there is a stoplight) is just unfeasible – my goddaughter, who lives on the school side of Bloomington, was briefly a crossing guard and her mother said that cars often went down the middle of 38th to avoid the crossing guard flags the kids were pointing at them, instead of stopping for a minute for the kids to cross to Bancroft. I’m not over at Bancroft usually, but I’ve seen cars veer around buses stopped on Bloomington fairly often, and summer before last I saw a car that had t-boned a bus on 29th street. I assume the driver was texting because I can’t imagine how else you manage that.

  3. J

    I’m 25 and I got to walk to every school I attended. But, the farthest I ever lived was a mile, and that was high school. I feel bad for the kids who don’t get that chance. It was honestly part of growing up. Walking home your crush at 14 feels like the biggest deal.

    Here’s to safer streets and stronger communities.

    *context – Milwaukee native.

    1. Julie Kosbab Post author

      If my kids were in neighborhood PK-4 (they are not; one is in middle school, and the other is in the district magnet school), the new school is well within walking distance. The problem is “o crap there are no sidewalks and MN65 is an uncrossable mess and we are all going to die badly.”

      1. J

        That’s too bad. I guess I never realized how good Milwaukee sidewalk infrastructure was. I can’t think of anywhere that didn’t have them. I did have to cross a busier street but there was a light and a walk signal.

        1. Rosa

          It’s similar there to here, I think. Minneapolis and the inner ring suburbs have pretty good grids and sidewalks, when you get farther out they disappear. Milwaukee and the inner ring suburbs have grids and sidewalks (my husband grew up walking and taking the city bus to school in Wauwatosa, though the bus doesn’t reach very far from the Milwaukee city line) but once you get out into the outer ‘burbs there isn’t much – we have relatives in places like Sussex and Germantown with no sidewalks and big scary 4 lane stroads between the housing developments and anywhere you’d want to go.

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