Learning the Proper Lesson from International Walk to School Day

Robious Elementary School. Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

Some 114 schools across Virginia have registered for International Walk to School Day with the goal of encouraging children to build awareness of walking as an alternative to the automobile for getting to school.

One of the participating schools is Robious Elementary School in Chesterfield County where parents won funding for a 0.7-mile walkway between heavily traveled Robious Road and the school grounds. “Make kids think about the fact they don’t have to be in a motorized vehicle to get everywhere,” said Bryna Dunn, a PTA member at the school. “There are other ways, fun ways, to get to where you need to be,” she told Jeremy Slayton with the Times-Dispatch.

As someone who walked to school every day for 12 years, I’m a big believer in the practice. Kids benefit from the exercise and the independence they learn from getting somewhere on their own. When a child walks to school, that’s one less car on the road that contributes to congestion, burning gasoline and pollution emissions. It’s a superlative idea.

Alas, I see little evidence that people are drawing the right conclusions. The Robious walkway was built with $500,000 in Safe Routes to School funds, which paid for filling in ditches, removing trees and creating a walkable path. That’s all very nice. But surely there are less expensive and more effective ways to make our neighborhoods more walkable.

Click on the image above to get a close-up satellite view of the Robious school grounds and surrounding neighborhoods. First, you can see that a path (not shown) following Robious Crossing Drive links the school only to neighborhoods to the south. It does nothing to promote walkability for kids living in subdivisions to the north, east or west.

The satellite view shows the insanity of the way Chesterfield County designs its built environment. The school is hermetically sealed off from adjacent neighborhoods by a wooded fringe. There are no paths connecting those neighborhoods to the school, which was designed from its inception to be accessible only by automobile!

Harry F. Byrd Middle School is fenced off from neighboring houses. Whoah, we wouldn’t want any of those pesky neighbors using the tennis courts!

I don’t mean to single out Chesterfield here. The example could be replicated endlessly around the state. Indeed, the Harry Flood Byrd Middle School in Henrico has taken the rigid segregation of the school from the surrounding neighborhood a step further. Not only is the school surrounded by a wooded fringe, there is a fence running along the property line just in case some kid got the crazy idea of trying to walk instead of drive to school. (No word on whether the school is participating in the walk-to-school-day event.)

William F. Fox elementary school in Richmond’s Fan neighborhood.

You want children to walk to school? It’s all about the land use, baby. Here’s one more image for your consideration, the William F. Fox Model School in the Fan district of Richmond, when dozens (maybe more) of students walk to school every day without the need for special, once-a-year events. Every street has a sidewalk — no need for Safe Path to School funding. The streets are arrayed in a grid — no need to follow long, circuitous paths to reach school. The speed limit on city streets is 25 mph — no need for your child to dodge fast-moving traffic. And the density is significantly greater — far more houses are situated within walking distance of the school than there are near Robious or Harry Flood Byrd.

Abandoning the urban model of human settlement patterns has contributed to some of the most deleterious trends of the late 20th/early 21st centuries — the decline in childhood exercise and the rise in obesity; the infantalization of  children, who are slow to learn independence because they rely upon their parents to go everywhere; and, of course, the excess consumption of gasoline and the excess emission of automobile exhaust that is the unavoidable byproduct. To my mind, the lesson of International Walk to School Day is this: The best way to encourage children walk to work is repairing Virginia’s dysfunctional human settlement patterns!

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    From where I live in far exurban Chesterfield, walking to the nearest school would take two hours one way and involves walking along a dangerous, winding road with no shoulder and no place to jump if a car starts passing someone at 60 mph. It is also insanely dangerous for bicyclists who drive whose devil-may-care attitudes are going to prove fatal, despite the current bike craze. I am no more in love with arrogant bikers than I am with the skinhead redneck kids who force you off the narrow roads with their jacked up and gigantic pickups with the oversized, off road tires and the deer-dog radio tracking devices on their roofs.

    This place is not built for anything but the car. Period.

  2. Peter, maybe you need to jack up that little car of yours and install your own oversized, off-road tires! Survival gear for south Chesterfield County!!

  3. I walked to school also but now days, parents are petrified that their unattended kids are at risk of great harm from evil-doers and many, if not most accompany the kids to the bus stop or to school.

    Many elementary schools now days have more private cars than buses queuing up.

    It’s a shame because that kind of exercise is not only good for you but can help keep the pounds off.

    I think it was the other day that the leaders of the Armed Services were talking about a horrendous physical wash-out rate.

  4. Yep.. here it is:

    ” Too Fat to Fight”

    Our organization recently released a report citing Department of Defense data indicating that an alarming 75 percent of all young Americans 17 to 24 years of age are unable to join the military because they failed to graduate from high school, have criminal records, or are physically unfit.
    Being overweight or obese turns out to be the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service. Today, otherwise excellent recruit prospects, some of them with generations of sterling military service in their family history, are being turned away because they are just too overweight.


  5. DJRippert Avatar


    You’ll have to help me with the deer dog trackers on the pickups. I only hunt in Maryland (where Sunday hunting is legal) and have yet to see a truck mounted deer dog tracking kit. I’ve seen handheld devices like the Garmin Astro but have not seen truck mounted devices.

    How do you hunt with a truck mounted device? Have the dogs run the deer from one trail to another and have the truck on the second trail? Or, are the truck mounted antenna meant to increase the range so that dogs that would run out of range don’t get out of range.

  6. DJRippert Avatar


    I was in London this week. I have a simple question. If urban living is such an efficient human settlement pattern then why does everything cost so much in large, urban environments?

    I was in Tokyo last week.

    I have a funny feeling that there is either something very, very wrong with your theory or the hidden subsidies from urban to non-urban people are truly astronomical.

    1. Don, very good question, and I don’t have all the answers. I would argue, though, that there is an optimal level of density — somewhere between America’s low-density suburbs and super high-density, skyscraper cities like New York, London and Tokyo. One of the things that makes the urban cores of world-class cities expensive is the fact the market forces assign such a high value to real estate prices. Another possibility, which is hard to disentangle, is the extent to which the residents of world-class cities expect a higher level of government service, which is expensive to provide, or that large cities also have vast populations of poor people who put a strain on social services. What someone needs to do is compare the cost of providing comparable-quality infrastructure, utilities and public services like public safety at different levels of density.

      The article I wrote a couple of months back about Peter Katz’s work (see “Fiscal Fix”) suggests that density is associated with significantly higher revenues per acre. As Ray Hyde has observed, there are also higher costs associated with density, such as maintaining and adding new infrastructure, which is expensive when you have to tear up streets. I would conjecture that the optimum level of density for costs and revenue probably looks like Arlington.

  7. Grid patten means you have to take a ziz zag path to get anywhere, which lengthens the trip not shortens it. A better model is centers of activity conected with radiating boulevards asnd grid pattern filling in the wedges, a la DC.

  8. I have a simple question. If urban living is such an efficient human settlement pattern then why does everything cost so much in large, urban environments?



    I have been asking that question here for years, much to the derision of emr. Not only does everything cost a lot, they cost a lot to govern and manage. EMR’s claim is that people WANT to pay more and are willing to pay more because of all the advantages of urban living (like dirt, noise, congestion, crime, and high energy use, I suppose).

    It hink things cost more because of what I call friction, human friction, if you will.

    I think DJ is wrong, the subsidies go the other way, for the most part, with suburban and rural areas paying much of the freight for urban expenses.

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