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Walking To School

— An essay by Tom Vanderbilt in the Sierra Club's magazine struck a chord with me when he spoke about what life was like when he was a kid.

Like him, I led a comfortable middle class life and suffered no deprivations worth mentioning. But I did have to walk to school. He points out that’s something few kids do these days.

I lived in a small town where nothing was very far away. I walked three blocks to elementary school and about half a mile to high school.

One of my high-school classmates lived half a block from me, and he would get a ride to school from his mom every morning. She once pulled up alongside me as I was walking and offered me a ride unless, she said, I wanted to continue my “daily constitutional.” At the age of 15 I’d never heard that expression and wondered what the Bill of Rights had to do with getting to school.

You could see the American love affair with the car taking hold when I was a kid. My high school colleagues who had licenses and cars to drive were all too happy to motor to school, no matter how close they lived. The street in front of Grinnell High School had a thick line of cars every school day.

But now, Vanderbilt points out that our “love affair” has become a dependency. Love is good. Addiction is not.

His conclusions will be no shock. Kids don’t walk to school because suburbanization has placed them too far away. Their parents are afraid to let them walk because they might be abducted or hit by a car in the crosswalk.

Vanderbilt says vehicle accidents are, in fact, the leading cause of death among children. So fearing for children’s safety as they ply the streets afoot is not unreasonable. Too many streets are designed with the sole purpose of moving cars as quickly as possible.

Getting kids to walk to school again will make them less obese and it will be a big step toward reducing our general addiction to car travel. I don’t know how long it will take to get there, but we were there already not long ago. The 1970s aren’t exactly ancient history.

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