Students Give Up Wheels for Their Own Two Feet
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
New York Times, March 26, 2009
LECCO, Italy — Each morning, about 450 students travel along 17 school bus routes to 10 elementary schools in this lakeside city at the southern tip of Lake Como. There are zero school buses.
In 2003, to confront the triple threats of childhood obesity, local traffic jams and — most important — a rise in global greenhouse gases abetted by car emissions, an environmental group here proposed a retro-radical concept: children should walk to school.
They set up a piedibus (literally foot-bus in Italian) — a bus route with a driver but no vehicle. Each morning a mix of paid staff members and parental volunteers in fluorescent yellow vests lead lines of walking students along Lecco’s twisting streets to the schools’ gates, Pied Piper-style, stopping here and there as their flock expands.
At the Carducci School, 100 children, or more than half of the students, now take walking buses. Many of them were previously driven in cars. Giulio Greppi, a 9-year-old with shaggy blond hair, said he had been driven about a third of a mile each way until he started taking the piedibus. “I get to see my friends and we feel special because we know it’s good for the environment,” he said.
Although the routes are each generally less than a mile, the town’s piedibuses have so far eliminated more than 100,000 miles of car travel and, in principle, prevented thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the air, Dario Pesenti, the town’s environment auditor, estimates.
The number of children who are driven to school over all is rising in the United States and Europe, experts on both continents say, making up a sizable chunk of transportation’s contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions. The “school run” made up 18 percent of car trips by urban residents of Britain last year, a national survey showed.
In 1969, 40 percent of students in the United States walked to school; in 2001, the most recent year data was collected, 13 percent did, according to the federal government’s National Household Travel Survey.
Lecco’s walking bus was the first in Italy, but hundreds have cropped up elsewhere in Europe and, more recently, in North America to combat the trend.
Towns in France, Britain and elsewhere in Italy have created such routes, although few are as extensive and long-lasting as Lecco’s. In the United States, Columbia, Mo.; Marin County, Calif.; and Boulder, Colo., introduced modest walking-bus programs last year as part of a national effort, Safe Routes To School, which gives states money to encourage students to walk or ride their bicycles.
Although carbon dioxide emissions from industry are declining on both continents, those from transportation account for almost one-third of all greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States and 22 percent in European Union countries. Across the globe, but especially in Europe, where European Union countries have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas production by 2012 under the United Nations’ Kyoto protocol, there is great pressure to reduce car emissions.
Last year the European Environmental Agency warned that car trips to school — along with food importing and low-cost air travel — were growing phenomena with serious implications for greenhouse gases.
In the United States and in Europe, “multiple threads are warping traditional school travel and making it harder for kids to walk,” said Elizabeth Wilson, a transportation researcher at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Among those factors are a rise in car ownership; one-child families, often leery of sending students off to school on their own; cuts in school-bus service or charges for it as a result of school-budget cutbacks and fuel-price gyrations; and the decline of neighborhood schools and the rise of school choice, meaning that students often live farther from where they learn.
Worse still, said Roger L. Mackett, professor at the Center for Transport Studies at University College in London, there is growing evidence that children whose parents drive a lot will become car-dependent adults. “You’re getting children into a lifelong habit,” he said.
In Lecco, car use has proved a tenacious habit even though the piedibus has caught on. “Cars rule,” said Augosto Piazza, the founder of the city’s program, an elfin man with shining blue eyes, a bouncing gait and a yellow vest. As he “drove” along a bus route on a recent morning, store owners waved fondly to the familiar packs of jabbering children.
Yet as they pulled up to Carducci School, dozens of private cars were parked helter-skelter for dropoffs in the small plaza outside as gaggles of mothers chatted on the sidewalk nearby. “I have two kids who go to different schools, plus their backpacks are so heavy,” said Manuela Corbetta, a mother in a black jacket and sunglasses, twirling her car keys as she explained why her children do not make the 15-minute trek. “Sometimes they have 10 notebooks, so walking really isn’t practical.”
Some children are dropped off by parents on their way to work, and some others live outside the perimeter of the piedibus’s reach, although there are collection points at the edge of town for such children. But many live right along a piedibus route, Mr. Piazza noted.
Yet other parents praised the bus, saying it had helped their children master street safety and had a ripple effect within the family. “When we go for shopping you think about walking — you don’t automatically use the car,” said Luciano Prandoni, a computer programmer who was volunteering on his daughter’s route.
The city of Lecco contributes roughly $20,000 annually toward organizing and providing staff members for the piedibus. The students perform a public service of sorts: they are encouraged to hand out warnings to cars that park illegally and chastise dog owners who do not clean up.
Naturally some children whine on rainy mornings. Participation drops 20 percent on such days, although it increases during snowfalls. On rainy days, “She says, ‘Mom, please take me,’ and sometimes I give in,” said Giovanna Luciano, who lives in the countryside and normally drops her daughter Giulia, 9, at a piedibus pickup point in a parking lot by a cemetery.
To encourage use, children receive fare cards that are punched each day. The bus routes have distinctive names (the one through the graveyard is the mortobus), and compete for prizes like pizza parties for the students. Teachers have students write poems about the piedibus.
In Britain, about half the local school systems now have some sort of incentives to encourage walking, although generally less formal ones than the piedibus, said Roger L. Mackett, a professor at the Center for Transport Studies at University College in London.
“It’s quite a lot of effort to keep it going,” he said. “It’s always easier to put children in the back of the car. Once you’ve got your two or three cars, it takes effort not to use them.”