Walking to School

by Kieran Healy on February 4, 2004

Kevin Drum asks why kids don’t walk to school anymore:

according to the CDC, only 31% of children ages 5-15 who live within a mile of school walk or bike. That’s down from 90% in 1969.

But I still can’t figure out why. Why do parents ferry their kids around when there’s no reason for it? What’s the motivation?

There might be more than one initial impetus — irrational concerns about safety, heavier school backpacks making walking more difficult, busier parents using the commute as quality time, and the like. Once it gets moving, the phenomenon seems vulnerable to a self-reinforcing tipping phenomenon. By not letting your child walk to school because the streets aren’t safe, you take one more child off the sidewalks and incrementally exacerbate the problem of deserted streets.

Like the original Schelling tipping model of racial segregation , this explanation has some very attractive characteristics. It’s parsimonious, self-propelling and grounded in simple, disaggregated individual choices. It’s got all the desiderata of an elegant theory that satisfies the strictures of methodological individualism mentioned recently. It might be right. But there’s still a good chance that, empirically, it’s wrong.

For example, in many parts of Tucson you court death by walking to school, or anywhere else, because the city is built to accommodate cars and not pedestrians. You routinely have to cross 4-lane highways and often there are simply no sidewalks to walk on. The lack of children walking to school might then be explained by the design choices behind the built environment rather than by a nice tipping effect. The other potential explanations mentioned above are also exogenous in this way. But we might find that the appeal of the tipping explanation is so strong that it becomes conventional wisdom without anyone actually studying the problem.

Social Dynamics, a recent volume of studies of tipping and agent-based simulation models of various phenomena showcases some nice work on trying to capture the emergent character of many social phenomena. But lovely as these models are, we know empirically that many phenomena that can be formulated as tipping processes do not, in fact, happen in that way. Neighborhood racial segregation, for instance, has historically been actively enforced and collectively sustained, and is not simply the unpleasant byproduct of innocuous choices. Similarly, social movements that successfully propagate ideas or initiate collective action tend not to rely on contagion but are usually very well organized. (In my experience, although they may not describe the empirical process properly, Schelling-type models are good _rhetorical_ tools for motivating people to admit that there might be a problematic pattern of racial or gender discrimination in their organization. This is because they give you the ability to say “There is this collective problem but it wasn’t caused by any of us making choices that were racist/sexist/whatever.” Very handy.)

To put it (somewhat unfairly) in disciplinary terms, economists are really clever model builders with no tradition of fieldwork, particularly in the more sociological areas that are now becoming popular amongst empirically-minded economists. They’re also strongly predisposed to explanations that can be put in terms of the collective consequences of isolated individual rational choices. Because these kinds of explanations can be really, really appealing, the need to go back and forth between the empirical data and the models is even more pressing than usual.

Update: I just remembered where I was channeling some of this line of thought from: I’d read a review of Social Dynamics by Michael Chwe a while ago, I think in the Journal of Economic Literature.



Kevin Drum 02.04.04 at 6:23 am

I cheated, sort of. The CDC survey actually asks about reasons for not walking, and they are distance, traffic danger, crime danger, and weather.

The reason I brought it up is that in my neighborhood none of those things gets in the way. Nobody in the neighborhood is more than a mile from school, there’s not much traffic and there are crossing guards at all intersections anyway, there’s no crime, and the weather is generally lovely. But parents still drive their kids.

Heavy backpacks? It’s true that I’m gobsmacked at the bulk that kids cart between school and home these days. When I was in grade school, I might have carried home a few fingerpaintings each day, but that’s it. Today I see kids with entire rolling suitcases full of stuff. And it’s true that when I asked a friend of mine about this I got a long song and dance about heavy books and having to lug a trombone back and forth.

Still, it doesn’t really add up. Basically, I just put it down to the absurd lengths to which suburban parents spoil their kids these days. But then, that’s about what you’d expect from a childless guy like me, isn’t it?


clew 02.04.04 at 6:34 am

In 1969 many of the more cautious parents would have been walking their kids to school (with obvious great safety effects for all the kids).

Another unplanned effect of the two-job family, maybe; or of the two-car family.

Now, what’s funny is, how many of the poor kids (and their parents) are driving off to weightloss exercise?


dave heasman 02.04.04 at 12:50 pm

“heavier school backpacks making walking more difficult”

Believe it. In my day we’d keep textbooks,exercise books and geometry kit in our school desks.

No longer. It all has to be brought home and taken back daily. Lockers are seldom available. In Haringey, anyway.


harry 02.04.04 at 2:49 pm

I’m sure Keiran is basically right about this, though he hasn’t named all the culprits. Here’s some more.
1) decreased population densities mean that fewer children live within a mile of any give school, so that the absolute numbers eligible for walking to school are down, so even if all wlaked there would be absolutely fewer kids walking, so the tipping point is reached quicker.
2) In half the US for about half the year it is UNBELEIVABLY COLD, and we don’t want our kids dawdling to school (as they tend to).
3) Parents are less strict about bedtimes than they were in 1969, so it is harder for them to get their kids out of the door on time (saves time to drive).
4) Clew’s two car family: it is regarded as eccentric now to have an intact family with children, and only one car. IF you have two cars, and both drive to work there’s a greater chance that school is not far out of one of your ways than if you have one car and one person drvies to work.

There must be others. Neither 1 nor 2 have any bearing on the situation in England, and in most urban areas (in England) it takes almost as long to drive a mile during the school run as it does to walk, so 3 doesn’t apply either (even though English parents are equally lackadaisical about bedtimes).

Incidentally, if Keiran is right, you’d expect collective action mechanisms to be available to combat the trend — and indeed, I know of several english schools which organise parents to walk the kids to school in a kind of crocodile — pretty successful, too, since parents take it in turns to walk a whoile bunch of kids once a week, instead of having to drive their own there every day.


Russell Arben Fox 02.04.04 at 3:55 pm

Regarding 1), that’s an interesting and relevant point. Population does drive things to a certain degree. Regarding 2)–yes, that’s partly true, but only partly: I can’t speak for Wisconsin, but I was raised in Washington State, and often walked in the cold and snow. Fact is, if a practice is culturally accepted (walking to school), then the material conditions follow (racks to store your coats, scarves and heavy boots in the classroom, the school day starting a little bit later, etc.). Which leads me to 3) and 4)–maybe it’s just an odd preoccupation of mine, but I hone in on your description of non-two-car-owning families as “eccentric,” and the “strictness” (or lack thereof) in bedtimes. Both reveal, I think, conscious or unconscious cultural decisions about the management of family affairs and roles, which have, predictably, real material consequences (in this case, the construction neighborhoods and schedules that assume children will be driven to school, making it all the more likely that even the holdouts will). Not that there aren’t legitimate economic or social factors that might drive those decisions; I don’t mean to insist on a uni-directional relationship between culture and materiality here. But still, I tend to see this issue pretty broadly: in terms of a generational change in aspirations and concerns (regarding, in particular, what areas of life a child ought to have “space” and freedom, and what areas are to be closely supervised, risk-assessed, and maximized). If the preferred vision of childhood education is achievement-oriented, then certain conditions will follow, with real (I think unfortunate) consequences.

More on my blog here: http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2004_02_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#107590863628748931


Stentor 02.04.04 at 3:57 pm

Being less than a mile from school doesn’t necessarily mean distance isn’t an issue. It’s all a matter of perception. I used to walk half a mile or so uphill to school every day. Then, for reasons I don’t recall, my dad started driving me in the morning. (Driving was actually longer distance-wise, because there was a shortcut up over Stony Ridge that you could take on foot, but to drive you had to go all the way around.) On the few days when he couldn’t drive me, walking seemed far more arduous than it had when I did it routinely. Once you get used to driving short distances, you get stuck in that rut. Which is one reason I still walk to the grocery store even though I have a car.


mary 02.04.04 at 4:41 pm

I live less than a mile from our elementary school. Between our house and the school is a busy 45mph road with no sidewalks or signals. Should I be sending my kindergartener across that road?


brayden 02.04.04 at 5:31 pm

“Similarly, social movements that successfully propagate ideas or initiate collective action tend not to rely on contagion but are usually very well organized.”

True, but social movement organizational forms and tactics often spread as a result of contagion effects.


Harry 02.04.04 at 6:02 pm


I meant my comments as explanation, not defence, honest. Thanks for the link — I agreed with what you said, and share the same sorts of concern. I am extremely conservative about children’s upbringings, in all the ways you suggest. And I think (perhaps quirkily) that the fundamentalist Christians are right about a lot of things they belive in and do vis a vis childrearing, and that the left shuld pay them some respectful attention.

For us, owning a single car was exactly a choice about how to manage our family life, as is the choice about strict bedtimes: I think its very important for my daughters to be up and lively and enjoy the time we have together in the morning as well as to make the most of (socially and academically) the school day, etc. Also, I agree about the importance of unscheduled time, freedom from parental control etc. I have a promise out to blog about our TV policy, which I shall deliver on soon.

But there is a big collective action issue here. Neighbourhoods in the US are designed for cars, not for children; and parents maintain strict control over their children’s use of time and space. Lots of parents simply keep their children couped up in cars for a great deal of the free time in the day. My kids could go and play in the street… but it would be with each other.

ON the cold — maybe Washington State is better. It was below zero (F) again this morning here, and my elder girl *is* a dawdler (part of what makes her such a delight actually, but not good for walking to school). We haven’t had to face the issue yet, since she is bussed to a school 4 miles away for intergation purposes. Next year she goes to a school 0.9 miles away. She’ll walk.


Russell Arben Fox 02.04.04 at 7:16 pm


I knew you were just adding additional possible explanations; my apologies if my post implied otherwise. Glad to know we’re on the same page here (we also are single-car-owning, strict-bedtimes types). And I wholly sympathize with your point about collective action. It’s not as though individual actors can greatly affect socioeconomic trends. “My kids could go and play in the street…but it would be with each other” sounds exactly like a mournful comment I’ve often heard from my wife when we’ve discussed these issues, and what is to be done? It’s chicken-or-the-egg: which came first, the conscious creation of a cultural attitude, with attendant material results (empty suburban streets, with both parents working and kids at day care and/or busily being shuttled from one after-school program to another), or the material demands (declining wages, affordable homes built miles from school houses) that gave rise to cultural adaptations? And either way, one’s own personal material allocations or cultural decisions probably won’t be enough to resurrect street hockey.

Anyway, you do what you can. Glad you liked the post. And I don’t think you’re being quirky at all to think that certain fundamentalist Christians have understood better than many leftists the real obstacles to child-rearing today. As you recognized in your excellent post on conservatives and gay marriage yesterday, there are situations, especially in regards to the family, where policies really should reflect “some limited assumptions about what constitutes a flourishing human life.” Traditionalists, at least in this case, have done a good job holding onto those assumptions, while many others–distracted by, perhaps, equally important issues–have often let any positive vision of child-rearing be undermined by other priorities.


Ken C. 02.04.04 at 7:36 pm

Another possible contributing factor: fewer sidewalks. I think new developments typically have no sidewalks, and that’s been true for awhile.


Ophelia Benson 02.04.04 at 8:19 pm

“And I think (perhaps quirkily) that the fundamentalist Christians are right about a lot of things they belive in and do vis a vis childrearing, and that the left shuld pay them some respectful attention.”

You know, that really, really interests me. There was an article in the NY Times magazine a longish time ago – two years maybe, or more – about a pair of Xian fundamentalists and how they were raising their children – and I was surprised and very interested to find that some of it (by no means all, for instance not the trad sex role stuff) was highly appealing to me. Especially the total ignoring of tv and popular culture – the acting as if it did not exist. Sure, there are some drawbacks to that, but there are some pretty big drawbacks to the total immersion that’s ‘normal’ too.


Amy Phillips 02.04.04 at 11:07 pm

In one of the many articles floating around about why people are so obese, I remember reading that many newer neighborhoods, especially in housing developments and other planned communities, have been built without sidewalks. So if kids want to walk to school, they’d either have to trespass on their neighbors’ lawns or walk in the street. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t let a child walk to school under those circumstances.


harry 02.05.04 at 12:05 am

I’ll respond to other stuff later (ie tomorrow) because I have to get the kids dinner and put them to bed right now, then help my mother-in-law with… well..
But I have to congratulate Ophelia on her memory. The article is called ‘Inward Christian Soldiers’by Margaret Talbot. I promise I’ll post ont his theme soon (that is, on the theme about fundamentalists, lefties, and child-rearing, not Ophelia’s memory).


Glenn Condell 02.05.04 at 12:05 am

Don’t discount heightened awareness (if not increased incidence) of abduction/molestation.

I have a beautiful 7 year old girl. If you also have children and you have (1) seen that footage of Jamie Bulger being abducted prior to his murder and/or (2) read Ian McEwan’s Child in Time, you’ll know that the dread won’t permit you to take any chances whatsoever. Not on a daily basis anyway.


harry 02.05.04 at 12:11 am

Sorry — I got so into this thread that I failed to notice that I didn’t start it and so have no obligation to say anything more. Still, I will say more later anyway.


MWD 02.05.04 at 5:07 am

Not an assertion, but a question.
Could part of the change be due to an increase in one child families? I would suggest this for two reasons: No older sibling to learn the routine from, and more protective behaviour from the parents.
I don’t also wonder for US statistics, how much is due to single parent families for most of the same reasons as two car families mentioned above.



rvman 02.05.04 at 5:42 pm

We don’t do manual labor, either. We have machines to do a lot of that. We use chainsaws instead of handsaws in the yard, powered lawn mowers instead of push mowers, weedwhackers instead of bare hands. We are richer and more capital-intensive than we used to be, so we are using capital equipment (cars) rather than labor (walking) to do a task. It doesn’t take much social change – if the folks in ’69 had been as rich as us, they would have driven, too.

A tipping point has been reached in one way, though – bicycles used to be a common approach, now disused, due originally to increased theft, but now as much due to the lack of bike racks at many schools.


John Smith 02.05.04 at 11:55 pm

Not to be patronising or anything. But an amazingly grown-up piece from Kieran (God, that is patronising…). The idea that chiselling pols would boost a tipping-point analysis because it tended to wipe away their responsibility as the causae causantes of social problems: more please!

On the Jamie Bulger point (Glen Condell), I’ve never seen analysis why the Myra Hindley/Ian Brady Moors Murders did not have the same effect on British parenting. That was a huge story: perhaps the first big specifically tabloid story ever in British journalism.

And yet I remember still (being around ten years old at the time of the publicity) being left to walk to school, travel to London on my own, play on the streets and so on. Why was there, for example, a moral panic in the 1950s about horror comics, but no similar panic about letting kids wander after Hindley?


JRoth 02.06.04 at 4:43 am

Boy, mary’s a bit touchy about this, isn’t she? Everyone here is acknowledging the role of physical developments in the US in this situation. It’s actually a great example of the unintended consequences (and unclaculated externalities) of modern suburban development.

I think that the various sociological reasons – 2 car families, spoiled kid – tend to apply as well, but I suspect that what they’ve done is to reinforce the physical trends. 35 years ago, being a nice, close walk to an elementary school was a slam-dunk in housing marketability, Now, I wonder whether it even factors into sales prices? I think the allusion someone made to viewing schooling as achievement-driven got at something vital. Many (most?) middle-class and up parents in the states will give up almost everything else to put their kid in a perceived-better school, with no concern for economics, socialization, or simple things like exercise & autonomy. Why have junior walk 3 blocks to the good public school when there’s an excellent private school a mere 45 minute drive away?

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