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The long drive to school: ignoring the new normal 

Before we can collectively move our cities and towns into twenty-first century realities, we need to understand and acknowledge where we are today and why we have a problem. Instead, we’re sleepwalking into the future.

Take Bailey Elementary School in Woodbury, Minnesota. Like most suburban-style school buildings, it has a problem: kids don’t walk to school.

In the hubbub, no one notices what’s missing – the dying practice of walking to school. Of 620 students at Bailey, not one walks – not even those who live one block away. Managers of a 6-year-old federal program think they know why.

Children don’t walk to schools like Bailey because of the lack of sidewalks and safe street crossings. But after spending $820 million to promote walking to school and reducing childhood obesity, there is no sign the program has actually added any walkers at all.

[Source: Fewer students walk to school; Minnesota Public Radio, Emphasis: mine]

Of 620 students at Bailey, not one kids walks?

It’s hard to blame parents for driving their kids when these are the types of intersections they need to cross.

This sounds startling, but if you look at the map you quickly understand that it’s reasonable for parents to not let their kids walk to school; the building is set back a great distance from the intersection of a busy collector road and a county highway and the nearby neighborhoods lack safe sidewalks. And while the intersection connecting Bailey to its nearby neighborhoods has a crosswalk, it has no stop lights despite four lanes of 55 mph traffic [Walk Score: 17].

Even if more sidewalks and safer crossings were added to the equation, we would still be ignoring the predicament of distance.  We’ve arranged our neighborhoods in a way that they are very far away from everyday places. This costs us a great deal of time and money: parents need to drive their children to school before they head off to work (time) and use up gas in the process (money).

If Bailey added all the recommended changes, it would still be an impossible two to five mile hike for the average 10-year old. This systemic problem is obvious, yet we’re painfully clueless.

It’s widely accepted that many schools built in the last 20 years were deliberately designed to discourage walking. What’s puzzling to me is that more people weren’t concerned about this?

Many schools are resistant to change because they are designed for drivers, not pedestrians. Architect Paul Youngquist learned that lesson when he was planning the new East Ridge High School in Woodbury in 2007.

“I wanted to put the parking lots a bit away from the building,” Youngquist said. But at a meeting, someone was aghast at the idea that the move would make students walk farther.

“I said: `Good! A walk seems like an appropriate way to start the day,’ ” Youngquist recalled.

But the chorus of outrage swelled until he relented. He pushed the parking lots next to the building.

“They just don’t want to walk,” Youngquist said.

[Source: Fewer students walk to school; Minnesota Public Radio]

We don’t want to walk because, at a conscious or unconscious level, we realize that the stuff we’ve built isn’t worth walking by.

If students walked to Bailey, this is the road they’d have to walk down.

It might be forgiveable if student walkers were overlooked or an afterthought. That wasn’t the case. They were specifically considered and the general concensus was to ignore them. Every time I think we are getting closer to acknowledging our predicament, I am reminded that we are addicted to our automobiles; and feel unsafe without them (if parents actually examined the numbers, they’d quickly realize their children are many times more likely to be injured in an automobile than by a kidnapper).

We are enamored with the automobile and most still see it as a ticket to the good life, not a burden on the checkbook. We’re entrenched in 70 years of a psyche that proclaims our prosperity as a nation is tied to our road system (and how fast we can get to the Applebee’s). The end result comes with the caveat that you have to burn a half-gallon of gasoline to pick up a half-gallon of milk.

The decisions to change our built environments have to start at the local level. Simple decisions like where to build schools, community centers and government office buildings are paramount. The dilemma is that we need to accept that our currents schools are where they are – surrounded by corn fields at the edge of town– but we aren’t going to tear them down anytime soon.

So what will happen to all this stuff we have built that we can't afford to maintain? The simple answer is that, if we can't afford to maintain it, we won't. … When resources get tight enough, things will fail and they will not be restored. We'll simply accept that failure and it will become the new normal. [Source: Suburban Salvage – Strong Towns Blog]

It won’t be long before we start seeing diminishing returns to projects reliant upon the variable cost of oil. We’ll use these places until we can’t afford them. Then, we'll scrap them.

In the meantime, we need to come to grips with our past failures. In doing so, we can concentrate our efforts on working within our existing environment to maximize the return on our public investment. This means no $125 million intersections to speed up exurban commutes by 5 minutes and certainly no $700 million bridges to Wisconsin farm land.


Another great post by Nate Hood. Check out his other excellent work on his blog at Thoughts on the Urban Environment.

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Reader Comments (9)

When I checked the Walkscore hyperlink, it showed a Walk Score of 3. Egads. Just because there's a multi-use trail nearby, and crosswalks, doesn't mean it's walkable.

Let's compare that with another new school, shall we? The Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts was built just a couple of years ago at 1801 N. Front Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19125, on the site of a former railroad terminal (for the Philadelphia & Trenton Railroad--now a part of the Northeast Corridor--for anyone who's curious). It's got a Walk Score of 83. See here.

What one surrounds one's places with is a major function of how community-amenitized that place is, and well-community-amenitized places have a major advantage in the new economy v. poorly-community-amenitized places.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve S.

For those interested in how school siting policy can be improved to ensure new schools are in locations that are safe and possible to reach on foot and by bicycle, the National Center for Safe Routes to School is co-running a series of webinars this month.

The first was held yesterday and addressed, among other things, the public health implications of school siting. I encourage any interested folks to tune in for the remaining three, beginning on October 18th.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Tarr

Great post, Nate. I think our readers should know too that whoever designed this, if they had a hope that students would use it, would be assuming that the kids would walk this inhospitable environment, with no shade, no cover and no protection from the elements, in the heart of a Minnesota winter.

Nothing like a fast car racing by flinging icey slush onto your seven year old as they trudge through wind-blown snow drifts on a trail designed to be shared with snowmobiles.

No thanks. I'll drive my kid. Or at some point, likely find a different school.


October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Great post. I think the post and the subject matter leads to a bigger question and issue we have with our contemporary school systems in many cities and towns across the US. That issue is the lack of engagement, discussion and participation in the community planning process from the planner, city and the community school board. As a city planner in many towns and cities, we craft plans that call for these principles. In almost every case during the public input process and the implementation sections of the plan we never have input or direction from the school board. We have even tried on a state level to engage superintendents in a physical planning charrette and discussion to inform and have them participate with designing the physical environment the school and its programs would inhabit in an effort to spotlight the importance in the design of the physical environment and how it can relate to students, teachers and parents. The hope, to create stronger physical environments that support and influence the positive behaviors and goals we wish to see from our schools.

Planners, architects and designers are as much to blame as the community and the school boards for not insisting and putting into place the desired vision we have. We collectively drop the ball when it comes to shaping the rules for property conveyance, which can help select sites we need, versus taking the left over sites we are given; to designing environments and facilities that fit into the character and vision of our community, which can translate into different facility decisions and tax decisions each community can debate and choose per their desires; and overall site design and open space designs that can engage community values such as walking, passive and active public uses; landscaping, drainage and infrastructure costs and design solutions.

Schools and their political systems are silos in the community fabric, which we all need to engage more and more, using community participation, political systems, design elements and other necessary strategies to reintegrate this critical component into the complex system that is community and quality of life.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen

All -

Thanks for the great comments. I wanted to respond to a few:

"Just because there's a multi-use trail nearby, and crosswalks, doesn't mean it's walkable."

- Absolutely! Most suburban neighborhoods built in the last 30 years will have some type of "walking trail" system and some of them do a good job of connecting residents to the developer's park and other houses within the sub-division. Yet, these pathways are in a world of their own and don't connect people to anywhere other than inside the development. Walkability requires access to 'everyday places' and '3rd places'.

"Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts - Walk Score of 83"
- I took a look at the map; and it looks like you've created a place worth caring about. It's always great to see a community get behind a school. It definetely seems like a signpost to success.

"Nothing like a fast car racing by flinging icey slush onto your seven year old as they trudge through wind-blown snow drifts on a trail designed to be shared with snowmobiles."
- The road adjancent to the school has 55 mph speed limits, little tree/shade protection and I imagine the wind can be brutal on a winter day. As an adult, I would be hesitant to walk this route even on the best of days.

The question of "who designed this" is interesting. For example: the architect interviewed in the article apperas to be well-intentioned - it's just that the public process probably forced him to compromise. My guess would be that the School District found cheap, ready-to-build land and commissioned a firm to draw it up after public hearings. The input from the public opinion probably mirrored exactly what they were given: an unwalkable environment.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood

Great post and great comments. In response to Ben's comment, that succinctly sums up the predicament, I would add one additional tool: most state statutes have an intervention mechanism for the local planning commission. It says something to the effect that "all public improvements, regardless of whether they are privately or publicly owned, and regardless of the level of government, must first be approved by the Planning Commission for compliance with the comprehensive plan." While denial by the planning commission maynot always kill an ill-conceived project, it can do two important things: (1) delay the project and raise these very issues in a very public setting for discussion; and (2) force (an often elected) body governing the specific improvement to officially say "yeah, we understand your community's plan and the public goals, but we are going to go against them anyway."

Again - not a silver bullet by any means, but if all of the more logical and rational steps Ben mentioned fail, sometimes you may need to resort to this. We have put provisions that emphasize and trigger this in lots of the development codes we have worked on - sometimes successfully used, but most often just waiting to someday kill the ill-conceived project about to be rammed down a community's throat.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchris

Very interesting. One of the other blogs I read is written by a teacher at an alternative school. One of the things he stresses is community engagement. It's hard to be engaged with your community when you're on an island.

I very fondly remember taking a walking field trip to the Ice Cream shop when I was I kindergarden, that wouldn't be possible at this school.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Barnard

I've been told that in some places there are now laws that mandate the amount of land that surrounds a school. Of course that makes it very difficult for schools to be built in the original places that they started. I don't know why you would need that much extra land, but for some reason, communities have actually done this. In our little town (Cass Lake, MN), they moved the school about 2 miles to the south of town. The net result has been that the town has continued a much deeper and faster decline than it already was on. Nobody walks to this school - everybody either rides a bus or is taken there by car.

But I don't think it's an impossible situation - they could build another new school in the empty space that was the old school - but it doesn't seem likely.

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMilt Lee

Excellent post. I was just having a discussion yesterday about the value of walkable communities. In particular we were reminiscing about how much time we spent in the car growing up on the way to and from school and considering how beneficial it is to live in a place where kids get to school on foot. You bring up some great points about our car culture and the need to make changes on a local level. I look forward to reading more of your work.

October 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate Gallery
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