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Returning the
Streets to the Kids

Gordon Stewart
Go for Green
February 2005

magine a school bus that parents with no special training or experience take turns 'driving' and kids 'climb on board' without it even stopping. This bus burns no fuel, emits no exhaust, cuts down on traffic congestion, and costs nothing to run.

It's a Walking School Bus - designed for one purpose: to provide children with safe, active, sustainable transportation to and from school. It's a simple way to reduce automobile use and encourage and allow more kids to get to school under their own steam.

The Walking School Bus is a component of the national Active & Safe Routes to School program, a joint venture of Go for Green, Green Communities Association; the Way to Go! School Program of British Columbia; Recreation Parks Association of the Yukon; Ecology Action Centre (Nova Scotia); Resource Conservation Manitoba; and SHAPE Alberta.

It works like this:

The Walking School Bus idea is introduced at a parents' meeting or school event where a large map of the school area is displayed. Parents are encouraged to mark their home on the map with a sticker and sign up if they are interested in participating. When the exercise is complete, natural 'walking bus routes' - streets where clusters of families live - are identified.

Parents can then get together to decide how they want to operate their 'bus' and to establish 'driver schedules'. As a walking bus driver, a parent might be responsible to escort the children on their route to and from school every third or fourth day, for example.

At John Wanless Public School in Toronto, Faye Plant, a parent, got the bus strolling. The school administration couldn't have been happier. "We were particularly concerned about the increasing traffic at the school at pick-up and drop-off times," notes Elizabeth White, John Wanless Vice-Principal, "For us, student safety is paramount."

Typically, children in kindergarten and Grades 1 and 2 are involved, with older kids joining in occasionally. In some of the early programs, none of the children had walked to school before, so it was an opportunity to teach them some street-smart skills.  

Health is an issue too, and one reason why l'École élémentaire Apollo XI in Campbellton, New Brunswick has joined in - charting a new course in a province where 90% of students are bused to school. "A Walking School Bus program lays the groundwork for lifelong active living," says provincial physical activity consultant, Jeff LeBlanc. "This, in turn, leads to better health, positive social behaviors, and improved academic learning." 

Public health nurse Shawn Woods, a nurse with the Durham Region Health Department is leading the efforts at Newcastle Public School northeast of Toronto. "This is an easy way for young children to get regular physical activity and begin to develop a healthy habit that will serve them throughout their lives," says Shawn Woods.

Health is further addressed by the second component of the Active & Safe Routes to School program - the creation of no-idling zones around schools. Getting drivers to turn off their engines while waiting makes for cleaner air in the immediate school vicinity.  

A third component of the program is a mapping exercise done in the classroom to help children get to know their neighborhood better. Originally designed for students in Grades 4 to 6, it has now been adapted for use with younger children. It involves a series of fun activities, relates to various parts of the curriculum, and can be done independently or linked to the Walking School Bus program.

A fourth Active and Safe Routes to School initiative was created by Go for Green in 2003. It’s the Walking Tour of Canada (, a web-based Teacher’s Resource that turns the walk to school into a fun learning experience for students. Using an interactive website, classes can log the distances they walk to school. An interactive map tracks their progress as they make their way across Canada from coast to coast to coast, a journey of over 18,000 kilometres! 

A Walking School Bus program doesn't aim to solve all of a school's traffic and safety problems, but it is a good place to start. It is also a visual reminder to the neighborhood and wider community of the health, safety, and environmental advantages of such eminently sustainable transportation.

One 7-year-old participant in the program summed it up nicely by saying, "It is good to walk and it stops pollution."  

This article was originally written by Gordon Stewart in 1999 and was updated by Go for Green in 2005.