Getting Schooled on Walkability

Just as every neighborhood should have a reliable fire station, every neighborhood should have a good public school.

Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 2010)

school comparison

A comparison between a walkable neighborhood school and an unwalkable sprawling campus (Lisc Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, 2011)

There has been a considerable amount of effort in recent years to build (or re-build) walkable neighborhoods. With professional organization like the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the American Planning Association (APA), to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy (LI) — all chiming in with their own advocacy efforts.

Most of the purported reasons for making a community walkable deal with reducing the miles needing to be driven by the residents of any town. This could, in turn, reduce the outlay of public resources needing to be spent on motor vehicle ways, and the amount of money the typical household would have to spend on owning and maintaining their vehicles. These two effects (the ability to reduce demands on tax revenue, and an opportunity to increase an individual family’s net disposable income) speak directly to both conservative and liberal values. 

But, before we can draw any conclusions about the beneficial aspects of walkability we should look into our actual travel habits. This will help us to better understand the potential benefits of revising our public policies, by allowing us to focus our attention on the best avenues for improvement.

traffic jam in america - dan chung - 2009

Traffic jam in America (Dan Chung, 2009)

The average American household, living in a single-family detached residence, makes just about 10 vehicle trips per day. And of all trips on public thoroughfares, only about 16-percent of them are work related (NHTS, 2009). The next largest percentage of trips are connected to getting kids to school or childcare (at ~10-percent) and shopping (primarily getting groceries) (at ~21-percent). In fact, there are more trips devoted to these latter two purposes than to all worked-related trips combined during any 24-hour period. Delving into these travel purposes a bit deeper, for the mandatory trips taken during the morning commute (equal to 80-percent of all vehicles on the road at that time) upwards of 19.5-percent are related to students driving themselves, or being driven to school. Let’s consider that figure for a moment — nearly a fifth of all peak morning mandatory traffic is related to kids getting to school. And, as we know, we design our roads to handle the peak traffic demands (not their 24-hour carrying capacity). 

This brings us to the single greatest reason any community should adopt walkability standards — to not only make our public schools walkable, but the center of every walkable neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the primary focus in most walkability publications has been on convincing the typical work commuter to either walk to their job, rather than drive — or take a bus to a centralized transit mall, then walk a short distance to their office. Even though the number of workers in a typical downtown’s central business district are no where near the total number of workers living in any one community. Most of these publications (and very few of the walkablity experts) have been looking at children’s travel habits — and very few analysts have been trying to understand the underlying reason why children have been walking (and biking) to schools less and less over the decades.

A notable exception has been the work of writers like Kaid Benfield with the Sustainable Cities Collective. In a recent post, Benfield artfully parsed the reason why our American schools have become increasingly less walkable and more dependent on private automobile use. Such writings more accurately frame the dire situation facing parents and children these days. So, rather than placing blame on the purported, ever-increasingly sedentary American lifestyle we should be investigating how the average American school has become increasingly less walkable since the late 1960’s (when these statistics were first being tracked).

As the typical American metropolitan area has grown less dense since WWII, the average American school district has adopted consolidation strategies, essentially super-sizing schools and their respective campuses. Since 1940 the average school in America has increased its enrollment by over 514% (Ehrich). This super-sizing effort has stripped the typical neighborhood of most school campuses, as school districts acquire outlying, inexpensive land to implement their larger consolidated programs. These massive school campus standards dwarf the campuses of yesteryear.

unwalkable schools

An example of unworkable public school campus placement from Loudoun County, Virginia (Google Earth, 2013)

As a result, families must either rely on buses, carpools, or personal vehicle to ferry their children to and from school. A startling statistic to keep in mind is that in 1969, approximately 41-percent of American students walked to school — but by 2001 that figured had dropped to less than 13-percent.

Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is the place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood public schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors.

Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 2010)

Dr. Diane Ravitch, the Research Professor for Education at New York University and the former Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration, has been calling for the re-birth of the neighborhood school. She believes that every neighborhood should have at its heart a public school.

But let’s take a step back and ask what such a walkable school-centered neighborhood might look like. Since most studies indicate that the average person is willing to walk about five minutes to reach many of their trip destinations, it’s reasonable to consider a “walkable neighborhood” to be sized within a circumscribed area defined by a (roughly) quarter-mile radius — that is, a distance that the average person can walk in five minutes. This circumscribed area is also called a Pedestrian Shed. Although it would be unreasonable to claim that the center of that radius should be a magical job center that employs everyone that lives within that neighborhood, it is supremely reasonable to assert that an elementary school should rest at the center of every Pedestrian Shed. Why so?

Using the Boise School District’s Student Generation Rate (the number of children expected to come from each average household) of .67 students/household, we would expect to see 13 students generated out of every 20 households. These students would fill the following categories: seven students in kindergarten thru 6th grades, three student in 7th thru 9th grades, and three students in 10th thru 12th grades. If an elementary school were placed at the center of a five-minute pedestrian shed (which covers about 125 acres) — and with a net residential density of approximately eight dwelling units per acre — there would be enough elementary school-aged children to fill one 200 to 250 student elementary school.

Though this might sound like a much smaller school then we’re used to, it is right-sized to a walkable neighborhood — with one to two classrooms per grade. Three of these elementary schools feed into one right-sized junior high — with an enrollment of 600 to 750 students. While two of these junior highs feed into one right-sized senior high school — with an enrollment of between 1200 and 1500 students. Most important to these school metrics are their ability to form a central part of the lives of the residents in each neighborhood.

One particularly helpful tool that communities and school districts can use to help assess their own policies in regard to walkable schools is Nathan Norris‘, Smart Growth Schools Report Card. This report card ranks communities along several dimensions and then applies an A-F grade for that community’s performance.


3 thoughts on “Getting Schooled on Walkability

  1. Great post. One argument against neighborhood schools is their higher cost. So, how do we pay for them? Also, I wonder whatever happened with the planning momentum of Safe Routes to Schools.

    • Thank you. The push to consolidate schools was originally based on an affordability argument. On the employee side, no one asserted a savings from a change in student/teacher ratios, but from a change in administrative cost (fewer principals, nurses, counselors, speech therapists, etc.). With some small additional savings coming from more energy-efficient newer buildings. But when larger campus size standards began being implemented, any purported savings from the facilities side fell apart. Even on closer inspection, the administrative savings never really made sense — since with a smaller school only a very small administrative staff was ever needed (with smaller neighborhood schools presenting a much lower administrative-cost-per-student, than their super-sized suburban counterparts) — with specialty staff like therapists and counselors usually riding circuit between several small schools. When I was working in CA, our firm thought about submitting a proposal for a Safe Routes To School RFP in Cheyenne, WY, only because the group behind the RFP was asking the consultant to assess their current school size standards (under the presumption that they were too big and forcing too many children onto unsafe thoroughfares) — I wish we had submitted a proposal. In the mid-2000’s Meridian was growing so fast that its school district had all the capital in the world to build new facilities — but almost no money to staff them. It fell victim to its own super-sizing strategy. We look at issues like Kuna’s sewer system as examples of capital infrastructure outgrowing the revenue stream, but this is a cyclical deficit (one that Kuna may yet be able to grow, or prune itself, out of) — but the public school size standards issue has all the hallmarks of an onerous structural deficit.

      • Perry also thought that each neighborhood should be anchored by a school, but I believe his definition of neighborhood is a bit different than what I’m talking about.

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