Saturday, April 18, 2009

Happy Earth Day: a revolutionary solution to global warming and childhood obesity all in one.

Hi everyone,

Rather than storm over Senator Grothman being honored by the Americans for Prosperity (sic) crowd for signing their "no taxes to address global warming" pledge -- because we'd rather watch the Earth burn than raise taxes -- I found this wonderful story about kids walking to school. Somehow a story about kids seemed more appropriate for a Love your Mother Earth Day column than letting in all that teabagging anger and animousity the neocons are feeling these days. Leave the dead to bury the dead I say.

For the living, there's walking to school.

Saturday's column.

Happy Earth Day!

A low-tech solution to cut our carbon footprint, our taxes and childhood obesity

Environmental problems look worse every year. Global warming, invasive species and groundwater contamination can seem insurmountable. But here’s some good news: A technological revolution in transporting K-8 students to school is undergoing trials in Milwaukee, Sheboygan, La Crosse, Eau Claire, and even in Omro.

Relying on recent discoveries in pediatric health, this radical innovation reduces greenhouse gas emissions, eases parental stress, improves student concentration, addresses the health risks associated with childhood obesity and cuts taxes. Reactions range from shock to amazement but, so far, the kids seem to like it.

What is this amazing new technology?

It’s called walking to school. Walking is back.

There are all sorts of good reasons why children should walk to school, like good health, but I like the environmental and tax reasons: fewer cars on the road and less money spent on fuel for buses.

You know what I’m talking about. Have you tried to drive by any local school during the drop-off or pick-up rush hours? It’s like NASCAR with mini-vans.

I first noticed it one morning four years ago as I drove to the University of Wisconsin-Washington County along Chestnut Street past McLane Elementary School. The place was grid-locked with kids clambering out of cars. That day marked my passage into middle age because my first thought was: “Shoot, when I was a kid we had to walk to school!” The voice in my head was my grandfather’s. Age happens.

But Pop was right. Kids should walk to school.

Here’s how bad it’s gotten:

In 1969, 87 percent of kids 5 to 18 who lived within one mile of school walked or bicycled to school.

In 2001, only 63 percent of those kids walked or bicycled to school.

Why don’t they walk as often anymore?

Surveys suggest two major reasons parents drive their kids to school: they worry about traffic and they worry about what experts call “stranger danger,” the fear that a child might be snatched off the street by stranger. The statistical realities throw these concerns into clearer relief.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 50 percent of all kids hit by cars near schools are hit by vehicles driven by the parents of other students. In Marin County, Calif., researchers found that 30 percent of all morning traffic is caused by parents driving their kids to school.

“Stranger danger,” something that saturated the media throughout the early ’90s, was uncommon then and is even rarer today. The number of kids kidnapped by strangers nationwide was 200 in 1988 and, by 2002, fell to 115. Statistics won’t make a parent feel better about their own children, but there are solutions that address both of these concerns.

This radical innovation in walking to school simply involves finding new, safer ways to get kids from doorstep to school room. The movement started in Britain with something called a Walking Bus.

Volunteers would lead a group of walkers along secure routes to school. Kids wait with their parents at “Walking Bus Stops” and then join in as the “bus” goes by. Parents can volunteer or walk along. At the end of the day, the process is reversed. Everyone gets to school, everyone gets some much needed exercise and, apparently, everyone enjoys the experience.

Personally, walking or riding my bike to school was my favorite part of a school day. How else is a kid supposed to stop and throw rocks in the river or watch ants on the sidewalk?

In the United States, these programs are called Safe Routes to School, or SRTS and, since August 2005, have been funded under the federal Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (or SAFETEA-LU).

The idea is to encourage children between kindergarten and eighth grade to walk or bike to school by creating safe walking and biking routes. Wisconsin received $2,499,641 in federal funding for such programs in 2008 and kids are now walking across the state.

The West Bend School District is just beginning to explore the use of SRTS to offset transportation costs and to improve the health of the kids – and our local environment. Any questions, check out Click in and check out the Wisconsin programs.

Imagine, walking to school is good for kids, good for the taxpayer and good for the environment.

This year on Earth Day, think about giving your mother a break: Walk your kids to school. Me, I’m riding my bike.

Even if it rains, I'm thinkin'.


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