Just one in 10 elementary kids walks or bikes to school, a drastic drop from three decades ago when some 60 percent of students relied on the heel-toe express to beat the morning bell.
Some local schools are trying to change that. On Oct. 5, the sixth annual International Walk and Bike to School Day, millions of students from around the globe, including the Chicago area, will use their feet and pedals—rather than mom or dad’s minivan—to get to class.
It’s all an effort to encourage kids to be physically active, and to remind communities that their streets need to be safe for kids, say local representatives for Safe Routes to School, an international movement that promotes walking and biking to school.
"It is just one day, but our hope is that it kicks off a larger desire to make [walking and biking to school] a routine part of kids’ lives," says Melody Geraci, of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (www.biketraffic.org), which heads up Safe Routes to School initiatives in the suburbs.
During the rest of the year, Safe Routes also helps schools teach bike safety, says Beth Gutelius, of Mayor Daley’s Safe Routes Ambassadors, which works with Chicago schools.
For some kids, the message is getting through.
"I feel good when I ride my bike to school," says Eddy Jakovec, 12, a sixth-grader at John B. Murphy School in Chicago.
Schools must coordinate and raise money for events encouraging kids to walk and bike to school, but Safe Routes can help. Visit either www.chicagowalks.org or www.walktoschool-usa.org for information.
And while it’s work, volunteers say it’s worth it. Hinsdale mom Maryann Romanelli organized Community Consolidated School District 181’s first Walk and Bike to School Day in 2000, hoping to encourage officials to improve area roads, sidewalks and signs.
Volunteers led clusters of kids to the district’s seven elementary schools. The school buses were still running, but they were empty, she says.
On that walk, says Romanelli, one official tripped on a rough patch of sidewalk—a move she couldn’t have orchestrated if she tried. Five years later, she still leads the district’s walk and bike to school festivities—and says Hinsdale has increased its budget to improve the infrastructure around schools.
If your kids are walking or biking to school, remember to be safe, says Gutelius. Kids under 8 should walk with an adult. Look left, right, then left again before crossing the street. Leave iPods and other earphone gadgets at home to hear approaching cars and pedestrians. In neighborhoods without sidewalks, walk in the street against traffic. However, always ride a bike in the direction of traffic and obey the rules of the road, such as stopping at stop signs and signaling turns. Find more safety tips at www.saferoutes- toschools.org/pdfs/SafetyTalkingPoints.pdf.