Tuesday, January 5, 2010

550 Steps

One of my favorite morning rituals is walking to school. We are lucky. From our doorstep to the courtyard entrance of my son's elementary school is exactly 550 steps. That takes the two of us six minutes to navigate, including a thirty second wait at the crosswalk to let cars pass. We leave the house at 8:30 a.m. and he is at school well enough in time to make the 8:45 bell.

On the way, we talk, we laugh, we hold hands (if no one is looking), we watch birds, notice clouds, feel the air, get our blood moving, and maybe finish up a few bites of breakfast if we are in a hurry. If it is raining, we carry an umbrella. If it is cold we put on a hat. If it is hot, we get hot. But it is always, always, a great way to start the day.

Last year I did a little bit of research to find out how many other students chose this archaic method of travel to school, under the auspices of promoting "Walk to School Day," an international event celebrated annually, usually in October. Using an in-school student survey in tandem with my street observations, I was able to summarize the results thus: Recent surveys estimate that of the 1126 students and staff that come to Stetson Hills School about 4% ride their bike or scooter to school; about 10% walk to school; about 40% ride the bus; and about 50% come to school by car. About 300 private cars drop off and pick up kids and teachers every day.

It should be noted that any child who lives over a mile from the school is eligible for free bus transportation. With this in mind, the statistic that alarms me the most is the last one, because at least 50% of the students live within a mile of the school. I'll cut some slack for the harried mom of two preschoolers plus a kindergartner who lives the full mile away, but I know that two of my neighbors, who live one and two houses down from me (10 and 20 steps, 10 and 20 seconds) actually drive their kids to school and pick them up by car again every day! This is the norm around here. This is pathetic. I will even go so far as to say that this is killing us, this habit of feeling like we need to use a car to travel three blocks or a mile.

We could do some even more crude calculations and come up with estimates of how much wasted fuel, how much CO2 and other pollutants added to the atmosphere, how much added traffic risk, etc. is accumulated by the thousands of vehicles district wide, state wide, and nationally because of the inclination of parents to chauffeur their children to and from school every day. Add to that the cumulative impacts of idling while waiting for school to get out, with heat or air conditioning blasting, depending on the weather, for up to 20 minutes per vehicle, usually rather large vehicles with inefficient engines. Plus the more alarming knowledge that these kids are being trained to never walk anywhere. As you might guess, this really ticks me off. It makes me feel sad. Thank you for listening.

But what is even more infuriating is that I did it too, for three and a half years! Not to the elementary school, but to the high school, which, is about a fifteen minute walk, but I haven't counted the steps. I confess. I enabled. I caved.

Thankfully, there are some bright spots on the horizon. First, if I were to amend the transportation survey today, I could add that .1 percent of students unicycle to school! One of our neighbors rolls three times as far as we walk, loaded with a backpack and a trumpet case! A much greater accomplishment is that my daughter, after much cajoling, has agreed to walk to high school for the rest of the year (her senior year), and even lets me walk part of the way with her! YES!!!!

How many steps will you take?

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