Polling All Preservationists: Did You Walk to School as a Kid?

Posted on: October 12th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 15 Comments

Written by Renee Kuhlman

In honor of Walk to School month, let’s take a poll.

[polldaddy poll=3911936]
[polldaddy poll=3911984]

When I give presentations about community-centered schools, I usually start out by asking folks how many of them walked to school as a kid. Almost half the room or sometimes even three-quarters raise their hands.  But, for many reasons, the majority of folks in the audience are unable to keep their hand raised. So it’ll be interesting to see if that holds true here.

Unfortunately, those community-centered schools that we grew up with are no longer the norm.

A study of South Carolina’s coastal counties found that “school site size has increased every decade since the 1950s and school sites built in the last 20 years are 41 percent larger than those built previously.”

But why is size important? Because as schools have increased in size they have also moved further away from the residents they serve. In 1969, 87% of students lived within one mile of their school; by 2001, only 21% lived within one mile of their school.

Getting ready to walk to school?

Getting ready to walk to school?

And then, just as our fries and sodas have been supersized, the same South Carolina study found that “… schools constructed since 1971… are 47 percent larger than the … requirement.” (NOTE: In 2003, South Carolina eliminated minimum acreage requirements for school site selection.)

Where we locate our schools matters.  In Georgia, where much of the growth has taken place in automobile-oriented suburbs, researchers estimated that 6% of elementary students, 11% of middle school students, and 6% of high school students in the state could reasonably be expected to walk to school.

But preserving our older and historic schools and changing state policy can help reverse this trend.

How? Well, researchers in Florida found a higher rate of walkability for schools built prior to 1950 and those built after 1996 when the state started requiring school district and local planning agencies to coordinate land-use decisions.

Keeping walkable schools in use and constructing new schools in walkable neighborhoods helps kids to get in their 60 minutes of daily physical activity through their “commute.”

I grew up walking to our community’s high school (c. 1950) which was one loooong block and two ballfields away. It was easy to get to band practice and a great place to ride my bike around after school.

Today, our family lives three blocks from the elementary school where I plan to walk my daughter someday and where we go to play on the week-ends. Unfortunately, the district closed the middle school in downtown about five years ago so we’ll have to get creative when we reach that milestone!

But enough about me … how did you get to school? Share your story in the comments!

In addition to wanting to hear about how you got to school, Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities project.

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15 Responses

  1. Tyler Davis

    October 12, 2010

    I grew up and attended school in Lemoore, California. When I was in elementary school, we lived in a rented Spanish bungalow (circa 1924) and I walked to school three blocks away. In middle school, we lived in a 60s ranch style home that we owned, and I was driven to school. In high school, we lived in a different bungalow that my mother bought (1926) and I walked one block to school (my high school was built in 1924, I graduated in 2004). Interesting that the older homes correlate with the fact that I could walk to school at each of those homes, and could not in the newer home. Just goes to show that older communities/neighborhoods were designed in different (better) ways than certain neighborhoods in the middle of the last century. Great article, thanks!

  2. Terri Fisher

    October 12, 2010

    But wait, there’s another side to this…I didn’t walk to school because I lived in a small town (pop. 1,500) where the historic school, built in 1836, was in the center of the quintessential New England village, but I lived 4 miles out. The school had 4 rooms, 70 students total, grades 1-4 or 6 depending on how many kids lived in town that year. My parents and grandparents went to the same elementary school. Certainly, though many of the students couldn’t walk to school, this was a community-centered school. In fact, the 9 towns in the school district, all but one of which have their own elementary schools, argue that keeping these schools open is important to each of these towns even in the face of budget shortfalls and that the schools help to define the communities. They have built a new school since I was there, using the argument that people didn’t want their children “in that old fire trap with 2 floors”. The old school has been repurposed as the Town Office building. The new single story school, built in the 1990s? The roof leaks and there are apparently structural problems, but at least its still in the center of town. They tore down the old brick high school building to build it, but that’s another story!

  3. Renee Kuhlman

    October 13, 2010

    Interesting that the poll shows an almost equal split between those kids who are able to walk and bike to school today. I wonder if it’s because so many folks responding live in older neighborhoods…

    Thanks for sharing your stories! The elementary school I attended was on the highest ridge in the town and because we didn’t live downtown, I rode a bus. However, I think that the climb up the 3 flights of “90 degree angled” stairs provided some great daily excercise. It was also a 3 story building with a basement where we ate lunch. About 10 years ago, the elementary school was closed and turned into a community college. Noticed on the last visit home that they’d closed off the stairs from the street below so that the college kids don’t have that big hike …instead they paved over the playground so they could park at the top:)

  4. Charisse C.

    October 13, 2010

    I walked about a mile to school and back in elementary school in West Virginia, but when I moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, we had to ride buses. The school was in walking distance, but there were no sidewalks in certain sections along the route. In fact, there was another elementary school along the route to mine that would have been closer to home, but my neighborhood was zoned for the other school a bit farther down the road. In high school I also took a school bus, but if I ever missed my bus, I was able to walk to school although this involved crossing busy Route 1 traffic and going through a wooded patch.

  5. Barbara Mulcahy

    October 13, 2010

    I was in school in the 50’s and 60’s in a Detroit suburb – I walked or rode my bike the 3/4 mile to school. There was a bus, and I did take it in bad weather and also because I had a crush on the “safety boy”. My other mode of school transport was with the milkman. Our milkman Del worried that a skinny kid like me would get too cold while walking. Sure, I was cold most of the time as girls had to wear skirts to school back then – but I always enjoyed my ride with Del. I got to stand up in the front of the truck, chat with Del (a father of 5) and listen to the milk bottles rattling in the back. On the days I rode my bike I could also easily ride home for lunch – much better than school food. I certainly never considered the excercise aspect of it all – but it was wonderful to have the chance to enoy the neighborhood and nature. Of course today the milkman would be arrested for child abduction – I would have to be in a child safety seat in the milk truck – the friendly neighbors along the way would be suspected as being pedophiles – my mother would walk me to the bus stop and wait, to make sure I got on the bus safely – the plate of cookies made by the mother of the “safety boy” and dropped off on the bus route would have been viewed with suspicion – and of course, I wouldn’t have had all of that excercise and wonderful memories………………..

  6. Jennie

    October 13, 2010

    Growing up in Seattle, I walked to school in the 70s. We lived just a few blocks away, and we would even walk home for lunch every day; Wednesdays were the best because that was the day my mom made homemade bread. (It was a sad day when the lunch hour was shortened and we had to stay at school.) I now live in Salt Lake City and when my husband and I were home hunting, one of my priorities was to live in a neighborhood where we could walk to school. We had to pay a bit more per square foot to live in an established, older neighborhood, but it was worth every penny. We live in walking distance of the elementary, junior high, and high school–definitely one of the better decisions we’ve made.

  7. Karen

    October 13, 2010

    We lived about 3/4-mile from the school I went to and we walked, the older kids took responsibility for making sure the younger neighborhood kids got there, it took us about 35-40 minutes to make the trip, which we did even in the winter and in the snow. Our walk took us across 2 major city streets, but we had an adult crossing guard, Miss Ruby, who led us through that. Kids would not have thought of crossing those streets without Miss Ruby. Our home was a1970s infill in an older neighborhood and our school was a three story, 1930s era red-brick school. It would never make the cut today because it had no air conditioning and was not handicapped accessible.

  8. Michael Rutigliano

    October 13, 2010

    Growing up in Phoenix in a 1950s neighborhood, my elementry school was across the street from my house (nice).
    The 1960s middle school was a half mile away and the 1960s high school a mile. I rode my bike to both. Today I live
    in a nice 1930s suburb of west Los Angeles that has six schools within a five square mile radius. Many families live
    within blocks of their school and yet many parents refuse to let their kids walk or bike, prefering to drive their children
    instead. Despite the district trying to get the kids out of the cars, one mother went so far as to tell the school board
    that even though her family lives just 300 feet away, “No child of mine is going to be seen walking to school !”

  9. Beth Reed

    October 14, 2010

    I walked to my elementary school in Connecticut from 1st to 4th grade by myself during the late 60’s and no one considered this dangerous! I had time to think as I walked and one time I found out that eyes were looking out for me although I didn’t know it. As I crossed a sidestreet in front of the Texaco station, a car came around the corner and nearly hit me. I jumped back on the curb and then continued on my way. Unbenownst to me Charlie (or was it Ed?) at the station had phoned my mom right away to let her know I needed to be a little more alert. As I rounded my street corner I saw mom sitting on the porch steps. She asked me nonchanlnatly, ‘So, anything happen on the way home? I got a call from Ed (or was it Charlie?) at the Texaco station.’ That was all I needed to hear to know I needed to be more careful in the future.
    I have great memories of those days. After we moved farther out in to the ‘burb’s (same town though) I had to take a bus a distance that I could have walked. It was required for some reason, no sidewalks I think, it was pretty rural. It was exciting in its own way but I couldn’t tell you any stories about those bus rides…..

  10. Joy Sears

    October 14, 2010

    From K – 7th grade, we lived in the country so we had to ride the bus or be driven to school. We moved to town before 8th grade and lived there through 12th grade. I went to the same elementary school K-6 and the same junior/senior high school 7-12 in my hometown. Once we moved to town, the bus only picked up the little kids on the other side of town. I could walk — had to cross a main highway to get there though. Once my brother got hit by a car on the highway, I usually got a ride if my parents were home in the morning and walked home after school. Once I got my license and a car, I drove home senior year almost every day for lunch which was technically against the rules.

    I was the last class to graduate from the 1900s plus main additions junior/high school. They built a new high school adjacent to the 1960s elementery school on the edge of town. The 6th – 8th grades used the old high school until the new middle school was built between the high school and elementary. All on the edge of town or at least it was the edge of town when I lived there — now it is has many houses around it as town grows around it.

  11. Dolores

    October 14, 2010

    I rode the bus to Catholic School in the 60’s. I did walk once in high school when I missed the bus — you did NOT want to wake my mom up if you missed the bus. Was an hour late for school but it beat the alternative. My kids have it much better — they were able to walk to school all through elementary and middle school — rather than tear down a neighborhood high school that was too small — the country renovated it into “two schools in one,” an elementary school and a middle school. When they were teeny, I walked them and then caught a bus to the metro to get to work. When they were a little older, I’d walk them down to the bottom of the street until they were in sight of the crossing guard. When they were older still, I stood at my door and watched them till they got to the bottom of the street. Finally, they reached the age where I could say “Get the heck out of my house, you’ll be late for school!” Walking to school is the best.

  12. John Kissane

    October 15, 2010

    I grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, population 8,000, and walked or biked to school all the way through 12th grade. (Not only did I not own a car in high school, I didn’t own a car until I was 25! My older brother is 52 and has never owned a car.) The elementary was only about 3/4 mile from our house and the junior high and senior high were each about a mile away. My parents would usually drive us to school if it was raining significantly, and we sometimes got rides on sub-zero mornings. It eventually dawned on me that it was worse getting into a bitterly cold car than just striking out on foot those frigid mornings, so after that discovery I rarely opted for a ride. During the year I was in 4th grade we lived on the outskirts of a small village near Cambridge, England. The two neighbor kids next door rode bikes to school with me every day, I’d guess about 1.5 miles or perhaps a little more. (My older brother attended a different school, further from home, and got a ride from my dad or the father of one of his friends.) I can’t imagine my childhood without the freedom to go anywhere I wished by bicycle. Of course safety was hardly a worry for my parents in that little town. When I think about the concerns we have for our two children being out and about in a town of 100,000 well, it’s quite a contrast to my parents, who were totally nonchalant and unconcerned about what I was up to.

  13. Debby

    October 16, 2010

    Living in small town Texas, I walked to school. Everybody who lived in town, walked. The kids who lived in the country walked to the bus stop, then rode the bus, unless their daddy let them ride their horse to town. If they rode the horse, the horse stayed in the Ag Barn til school was out. When we moved to a larger town, I rode the school bus because the high school was too far away to walk, but my little brother walked across the street to the neighborhood school. Now I teach school and nobody in my pre k class walks to school. Everyone rides the bus or gets dropped off by a parent or grandparent.

  14. Brenda

    October 17, 2010

    I grew up in a Long Island suburb in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Until 1969, we had a district-wide kindergarten and neighborhood schools for grades 1-6, plus district-wide junior high and high schools. Grades 1 and 2 got to go home for lunch; grades 3-6 stood at school. I lived about 3/4 mile from the school but had a school bus that was never more than about 1/10 of a mile from my house. If I needed to, I could have walked home from school — although there was a major high-traffic street in the way that posed a challenge for young children. In 1969 we integrated the school district, with each primary grade being sent to a different school. Once that happened, there was less opportunity for primary-schoolers to walk or bike to school.

    The Junior High and High School were each about 2 miles from home, but since the census measured only from the main street intersection, I fell inside of the 1.5-mile no-school-bus-service limit. I started out bicycling to school, but quickly ran afoul of bullies and vandals. The parents got together and got the town to commission the local bus company to put a single morning to, and afternoon from, ride for each of the schools, so I rode a pay bus to and from school for most of Junior High. By the time I reached high school, my grandfather had retired and insisted on chauffering both my sister and me to and from school.