How design can influence walking to school

Robert Steuteville, New Urban Network

An absurd story was reported this week — a South Jordan, Utah, mother was cited for neglect because she allowed her child to walk to kindergarten. The child's bus route had been eliminated in cuts, and the mother was forced send him on his own — outfitted with a bright orange safety vest. The child must cross a busy street with fast-moving traffic where the school is inconveniently located.

As the Deseret News reports, the mother had the choice of sending the boy along the side of a road with no sidewalks but with an intersection with a crossing guard, or the side with a sidewalk and no guard. The mother felt it was safest to send him on the side with a sidewalk. A policeman picked the boy up, took him home, and issued the mother a ticket.

The story is the logical outcome of neighborhood, street, and school design policies of the last half century, mingled with the current climate of budget cuts. The policies were formed over decades under the assumption that children would be bused, and now many districts cannot afford to provide that service. The situation is putting parents and children in a difficult position, and the common expectation that parents will drive their children to school is contributing to an obesity epidemic.

The school happens to be less than two miles from a new urban development called Daybreak, where streets, neighborhoods, and schools were designed for walking (see photo). As University of Utah environmental psychology studies have shown, the difference in walking to school has been dramatic.

"The most recent published study came out this fall and examined two schools in South Jordan, the first in a standard sub-urban neighborhood as the control, and the second, one of Daybreak's three elementary schools," explains Stephen James, manager of planning and community design for  Kennecott Land, the developer of Daybreak.

"The study looked at what percentage of children walked to school and what were the actual and perceived barriers to walking from both the point of view of the students as well as the parents.

"What the study discovered is that 15 percent of children in the non-Daybreak School walked to school at least once a week as opposed to 80 percent of students attending school in Daybreak. The study noted that a parent's perception of danger and risk is very different than a child's. More children in a non-Daybreak school would have walked had they been given a chance by their parents. In the Daybreak school, the perceived and actual risks were mitigated by environmental design, resulting in a much higher percentage of walking students.

"What the study shows, is that walkable design does influence behavior due to perceptions of safety," James explains.

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