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The Town Where Everyone Still Walks to School

In a nation where few students still walk to school, how has Lakewood, Ohio, gone without school buses for so long?

Lakewood, Ohio, is the most densely populated place between Chicago and New York City.
Flickr/Joshua Rothhaas
In 1969, half of American schoolchildren walked or rode their bikes to school. These days, relatively few do. Just 13 percent of kids walked or biked to school in 2009. 

But there’s one Ohio community that has steadfastly resisted that change. In the town of Lakewood, almost everyone still walks to school. That’s because Lakewood doesn’t have any school buses—and it never has.

There are a few reasons why Lakewood may be the nation’s unofficial walk-to-school capital. Density, for one. The town was incorporated in 1910 as an inner-ring streetcar suburb of Cleveland. Lakewood grew up with walkable, densely populated neighborhoods. Today the city of 52,000 has 9,000 residents per square mile, which, according to city planner Bryce Sylvester, makes it the most densely populated place between Chicago and New York City.

As Lakewood grew, the city opted against setting up a school bus system, focusing instead on building schools to fit within the community. Most of the schools are multistory buildings on relatively small lots, making them easier to incorporate into residential neighborhoods. As the facilities aged over the years, officials chose to restore and upgrade the existing structures, rather than build sprawling new single-story campuses.

As a result, most everybody walks to school. “That’s just normal here,” says schools spokeswoman Christine Gordillo. As an upshot, kids in Lakewood naturally get more exercise. “My friend has a son who doesn’t play any sports,” says Gordillo. He’s a relatively sedentary student, she says, but “that walking to and from school, that’s his exercise.” (The city takes walking very seriously: In the winter, one middle school opens to adults so they can walk for exercise even when temperatures plunge below zero.) 

In a country where one-third of children are overweight or obese -- and where nearly a quarter of all students get no physical activity during the school day -- walkable schools could have definite positive health effects. Some communities have implemented “walking bus” programs to encourage more students to hit the sidewalk each morning. The concept, in which volunteer parents lead walking groups that pick up specific kids at specific times every day, is still relatively rare. But it’s been instituted in a handful of communities from Palo Alto, Calif., to the Boston suburbs. Chicago, where 90 percent of the city’s public school students walk to school, has had a walking bus program since 1997. Speaking about Knoxville, Tenn., last year, first lady Michelle Obama praised that city’s walking school bus plan. “I’ve heard more and more of this kind of walking school bus happening all over the country -- so that kids can get exercise on the way to school, kind of like we did when we were growing up.”

In Lakewood, there’s another benefit to having everyone walk: The city saves a fortune on school buses. When Lakewood does need to provide transportation for students -- for field trips, out-of-town games and so on -- it contracts with the nearby town of Olmsted Falls. But all told, the Lakewood school district spends about $500,000 a year on transportation, about $1 million less than comparable school districts, according to schools treasurer Kent Zeman. That’s money it can use for other things, including the slightly higher costs of maintaining those smaller, neighborhood-oriented schools. As Zeman puts it, “If you’re going to spend extra money, I’d rather it be on a teacher than a bus.”

Daniel Luzer is GOVERNING's news editor.
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