Why Do So Few Kids Walk or Bike to School in My State?

When I was a teacher in Connecticut, most of my students walked to school. I taught just a few blocks from downtown, so that made walking a pretty reasonable option. However, that wasn’t the norm in the rest of New England, and it would be really exceptional in my current home state of Kentucky. In fact, only 3% of students walk or bike to school in the “East South Central” states of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Walking and biking to school varies by region.

Nationally, about 10% of students walk or bike to school every day, but actual likelihood of walking to school varies significantly by region. Why are students in my region ranked lowest in the country in active forms of transportation, and what are the “Pacific” states of California, Oregon, and Washington, with the highest rates of students walking or biking to school, doing that we aren’t?

Distance to school and regional density

As of 2001, three in four students lived more than a mile from their schools, up from just over half in 1969. As seen in the table below, as distance between students and their schools increases, the likelihood they will walk or bike to school decreases.

Table showing rates of walking and biking to school by distance from home to school.

Distance to school is closely associated with regional density. By definition, students in rural areas live in more remote settings compared to their urban and suburban peers, which makes walking or biking to school a more logistically challenging proposition. Even if students live the same distance from school, regional density can make the experience feel very different. A mile along a rural highway is a very different walk to school than a mile across an urban neighborhood, which is more likely to have sidewalks and lower speed limits that make for more pedestrian-friendly streets.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education show that the “Pacific” states have a relatively small percentage of students living in “rural” settings. Student population in rural areas ranges from 5.6 percent in California to 13.9 percent in Oregon. In the East South Central region, states’ rural student populations range from 30 percent in Tennessee to 46.4 percent in Mississippi. This could help explain why students in the Pacific walk and bike to school at a rate nearly eight times that of students in the East South Central region.

Investment in infrastructure

Rates of walking and biking have also declined among students who live within a mile of their school. District transportation guidelines might say a mile is a reasonable distance to walk or bike, but many families feel differently. If routes are safe according to metrics like car collisions or crime, this trend could puzzle district and city planners. But, researchers using parent surveys and Geographical Information System (GIS) data in Denver found that while some roads were not considered “dangerous” by typical measures, families rated them as unsafe due to factors like high traffic, lack of sidewalk connectivity, or unprotected bike lanes.

Some regions may be doing more to invest in pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly infrastructure, such as connected sidewalk networks, street-calming road design, and protected bike lanes.

Those regional differences are made very clear when looking at data from Walk Score, a service that rates the pedestrian-friendliness of neighborhoods and cities on a 0 to 100 scale. Seattle ranks in the top 10 of US cities with a “walkability score” of 73.1, compared to Louisville’s score of 33.3. In fact, none of the major cities in the East South Central region have a walkability score over 40, while the Pacific region is home to 4 cities in the top 10 of walkability scores.

How can communities respond?

In our brief on school transportation safety, “School Crossing”, my co-author Bonnie O’Keefe and I show how parents, school leaders, and government officials can collaborate to improve the safety and feasibility of walking and biking to school.

Cities in the South and Midwest have the most opportunity to improve. They already have density that could make walking or biking to school a realistic option, but without changes to infrastructure to make walking and biking safe, they will still have 90% or more of their kids riding to school instead of walking.