Sustainable Sac: Getting the Kids to School

The takeaway: Walk or bike, don’t drive.
biking or walking to school

Every school day, dozens of cars snaked in and out of my daughter’s Pocket-area elementary school paved lot, dispensing one or two children (occasionally three) while the cars idled or parked to the side. Because it is a private institution and had met all the various coronavirus public-health requirements, the school was able to offer outdoor, in-person learning for most of the twisted 2020–21 scholastic year.

This late summer and fall, at least as of this writing, marks the complete reopening of public schools. Children are being chauffeured mornings and afternoons at rates that probably match those of September 2019. That development has many consequences, of course, but here we will focus on just one, and it’s a stinker: pollution!

Back when I was in fourth grade, in the surely-that’s-a-typo year of 1969, more than two-thirds of children in the United States commuted to their schools by walking or bicycling. By 2001, that percentage had dropped to 13, and there is little reason to suspect that an updated figure would be much different.

Two years ago, before COVID-19 struck, published a story by Katherine Martinko with the pleading title “Please Walk Your Kid to School Instead of Driving.”

“Every morning,” Martinko wrote, “millions of well-meaning parents drive their kids to school. These parents think they’re doing the kids a favor—giving them more time to sleep in, making the morning go smoothly, delivering them on time, sheltering them from the weather—but, in fact, something insidious is happening.”

That insidious something is car fumes, which Martinko forthrightly called “poisonous.” She acknowledged that there are legitimate excuses for some children being driven to school but chastised “the many parents who drive every single day because they cannot be bothered to (a) walk their kids or (b) allow their kids to walk alone.”

Sacramento City Unified School District is the state’s 11th-largest, with around 48,000 students. The district owns and operates some 250 buses, so there is a “mass-transit” option for some students. (Which students are bused, and why, we won’t get into.)

Children’s well-being is the primary concern for these buses’ use, as is verified in the district’s most recently produced Transportation Safety Plan, from 2015–16. The yellow vehicles’ “green” credentials could be burnished, but not cheaply.

Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit that works to improve education equity for underserved children, two years ago suggested ways that school districts could lighten their buses’ carbon imprint. Those strategies included reducing idling time, retrofitting diesel buses using cleaner energy technologies, and encouraging walking and biking.

California has had more than its share of bad-air struggles, most recently due to an annual rash of wildfires. If you are a parent (or caregiver) who can confidently let your children walk or bicycle to school safely, please consider having them do so. Carpooling and public transportation might seem a bit dicey during the lingering pandemic, but someday they again will be attractive options.

In fact, working adults might benefit from a less-exhausting (in the air-quality sense) commute if they are within walking or biking distance of the office. Their health could benefit, and the breaths we take might just get more healthful, too.