Entering the School Zone
Before children can start learning and interacting with peers, they need to get to school. And how they do has an enormous impact on our environment as well as their health, given that transportation accounts for the second-biggest release of greenhouse gases (just behind the built landscape).
Of course, home schooling cuts down on transportation needs, as well as the need for the heating and cooling of school buildings. But home schooling also requires considerable investments of time and resources by parents, and isn't for everyone. So give some thought to how you send off your kids each morning, for the planet as well as their safety (and health).
1. Walk, bike or skateboard
Chances are, you (and certainly your parents) walked or biked to school. Not only is that the greenest option, resulting in no new carbon emissions, but it is also generally the healthiest option, since exercise is critical for developing bodies, and America staggers under a life-threatening obesity epidemic.
The numbers are dramatic: In 2001, less than 15 percent of students between the ages of five and 15 walked to or from school, and 1 percent biked. In 1969, 48 percent of students walked or biked to school.
Why the sea change? Some of the reasons are increasing sprawl and increasing reliance on the private automobile, as well as declining walkability and neighborhood unity. A big reason, according to Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods and originator of the concept of nature deficit disorder, is that a culture of fear has pervaded our country. Louv points out that even though statistics show violence against children has actually declined in most areas, parents are much more fearful that something bad will happen to their little ones. The bottom line: Statistically, students are much less likely to be injured or killed walking or biking than commuting to school via automobiles.
The key is to teach your children about being alert and about traffic and personal safety, to insist that they wear helmets if biking or skateboarding and to encourage them to travel with a buddy or group.
2. Consider an E-bike
If your home is a little farther from school than reasonable walking distance, or requires a hilly route, consider getting your teenager an E-bike. These ingenious rides pair a traditional bicycle with a clean electric power-assist drive, which improves range and ease of use. Plus, young people love gadgets, and an e-bike is pretty cool technology.
3. Start a "walking school bus" or "bicycle train"
The fact remains that parents still worry about their child getting lost, injured or even abducted, and a great way to reduce those risks is safety in numbers. The walking school bus is a wonderfully simple idea, in which students meet up with an adult "driver" and head to school together.
A parent, teacher or neighborhood volunteer watches out for the children and leads the way (it can be a revolving task). It can be informal or include a defined route, with meeting points and a timetable. Some communities even make signs, or outfit the walking school bus with cute, identifying clothes or placards. This works particularly well for young children.
4. Put them on the school bus
About 25% of children these days ride the big yellow bus. It is the safest way for them to arrive at school, according to the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Science and Engineering. Only an average of 20 children die each year to and from school in buses, and 6,000 are injured, compared with more than 600 deaths and 129,000 injured while commuting via automobile.
Buses are considerably more efficient than cars, using less fuel and releasing lower amounts of carbon emissions. New technology is making diesels cleaner, and hybrid and natural gas options are starting to become available.
5. Send them off via mass transit
This approach will only work with young kids if you or another adult can supervise the child's ride, but sometimes it's still the best option. Older students can take the subway or train to school in groups.
Not only is transit much safer than being in private cars, but it uses less fuel, results in lower harmful emissions and requires a smaller footprint in terms of building materials and habitat loss. In fact, your carbon emissions would be about two-thirds less versus driving.
For many children in large cities, the subway is the only practical way to get to school anyway. But for others it certainly doesn't hurt to get them started early on greener transportation.
6. Carpool with other parents in the area
Carpooling makes good sense for a number of reasons, including as a time and money saver, congestion and pollution reducer, and as a way to get to know your neighbors better.
According to the EPA, morning rush hour traffic surges by 30% at the beginning of the school year. As any parent who has been late for work because of idling in the school drop-off zone knows, there is only a limited amount of pavement. So start carpooling this year.
7. If you must drive your kid, combine trips
If you are going to drop your child off for school, at least combine the excursion with your own trip to work or school, or follow up with a visit to the dry cleaner's or grocery. You'll save gas and reduce your automotive impact.
Also, don't forget to keep your car well maintained, with the tires inflated, and don't drive around with extra weight. With today's high gas prices, you shouldn't need much more motivation to save at the pump.
8. Avoid teen driving, which is dangerous and dirty
It probably surprises no one that the most dangerous way for young people to get to school is to drive themselves or their friends. Teens are inexperienced drivers and often don't pay enough attention, especially if they are trying to impress their peers.
Teens also tend not to drive very efficiently, since they are less adept at keeping speeds constant, often exceed the speed limit and are fond of "jackrabbit starts," which waste gas. They are also prone to take the long route home to spend more time with friends, or idle unnecessarily while waiting on each other.
Some districts have even discussed banning cars from school zones, both to alleviate traffic jams and to encourage more kids to walk or bus it.