(CNN) — “Back in my day, we used to walk five miles uphill, carrying all our books in the blistering cold and the pouring rain…”
You know the line. It’s been uttered by grandparents and parents time and time again. They can’t help but recap how their experiences were so different from kids’ today. And when it comes to walking to school, they couldn’t be more right.
Forty-five years ago, nearly 48% of students walked to school. Thanks in part to the proliferation of automobiles and school systems that feed larger regions, that number has dropped dramatically. Five years ago, barely 13% of students walked or biked to school, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
But October 8 is International Walk to School Day. It’s a day dedicated to celebrating all the benefits of walking. This global event encourages students around the world to get out and get moving, combating childhood obesity by upping students’ activity levels. By getting more children and parents out walking, organizers say, they’re creating a sense of community, helping others learn safe places to walk and cutting down on fuel emissions and traffic congestion caused by long carpool lines and big, yellow school buses.
In Somerville, New Jersey, there’s a different school bus making the rounds and picking up students near Van Derveer Elementary School. It’s called a walking school bus, and it has been rolling — stepping, really — for more than 10 years.
“It’s just the coolest thing,” said Susan Haynes, principal of Van Derveer Elementary School.
At that time, Haynes was the newly minted principal with this dilemma on her desk: In New Jersey, bus service isn’t required if students live within 2½ miles of school and all Van Derveer’s students fall within that range. Budget cuts meant the district’s free shuttle service would be eliminated.
Cuts as extreme as those in Somerville aren’t common, but the savings can be substantial, said Jim Crane, project manager for the National Center for Safe Routes to School.
Inspired by international programs, district leaders in Somerville implemented the walking school bus, which is still running today.
Participants say the walking school bus has built a greater sense of community. Parents, teachers and volunteers — all on foot — pick up students along a designated route on their way to school. Firefighters, police officers, even Sparky — mascot of the Somerset Patriots baseball team — participate on occasion. As they walk to school in sun, snow and rain, the bus continues to grow.
Special days have been designed to draw extra attention to their everyday initiative. Walk to School Wednesdays and Foot-It Fridays are a direct result of student feedback and involvement. One-third of the student body participated in the school’s most recent Walk to School on Wednesday.
“It’s kind of like you’re driving in a real school bus, but you just walk all the way to the school,” fifth grader Makhia Robinson said.
Sometimes, even, uphill.
By Sarah Esteves