The Walking School Bus by Angela Caldin

When a friend mentioned to me something called the walking school bus, I really didn’t know what she was on about. I tend to take things literally, so I wondered how on earth a bus could walk and why you would want it to. But then my granddaughter started school and I came to grips with the reality of this brilliant idea. I don’t know if they have them in the UK, but here in New Zealand they are a major feature of getting to school.

The idea is very simple: the children walk to school along a designated ‘bus’ route. There are some stops along the way where other children can join. The whole thing is supervised on a rota basis by parents and carers who act as conductors, so they only have to walk the route themselves maybe once a week. Funding is available to purchase fluorescent waistcoats and special tags for the children’s schoolbags which are clipped daily and earn a prize once completed which encourages the children to keep coming on the bus.

Our bus starts down near the railway station: a few children ramble up the hill with their carers to a nearby crossroads. There more children congregate and the adults on the rota for the day clip the tags and marshal everybody for the off. The children shoulder their heavy packs, filled with lunch boxes, water bottles and goodness knows what else and start off at a brisk pace up the hill. At the top is a little park with another bus stop where more children join, waving goodbye to their parents, falling in with their friends and heading up the road to the alleyway off to the left. That’s the site of the last bus stop where one or two extras slot into line. We plunge down the alleyway with an adult in front, one in the middle and one bringing up the rear, down a flight of steep steps and onto the wooden duck bridge leading over the estuary.  Looking over the sides, we can see ducks and pukeko in the water and, on the banks, small boats belonging to the beautiful houses built near the water’s edge. What a great way to get to school through such wonderful scenery. As we come off the bridge, a steep dirt track leads up a hill back to a road again. The children huff and puff up the slope, their bags swinging from side to side. When they get to the top and are on the level again, they collapse in a heap on the pavement, taking a few minutes to get their breath back. Then we’re on the home strait, on a small incline until we get to the school gates where the children take leave of their adult helpers and make their way independently to their respective classrooms.

In Auckland, over 4,000 children regularly walk on a walking school bus, cutting down on traffic around schools. Many schools have the most nightmarish congestion in the road outside the building with parents in large cars jockeying for parking spaces, blocking driveways and squeezing past each other in an effort to get as close to the school as possible. Bad manners and short tempers abound, while car doors swing open dangerously.  The bus idea has many other benefits including safer, healthier, more active children; practical road safety education for children; more chances for both children and adults to make friends as they walk along together; fewer traffic fumes around schools;  altogether an environmentally friendly, energy efficient way of getting to school. In addition, it is a sponsored scheme so there is no cost to schools or parents. Walking buses usually begin at about 8.15am, depending on length of the route and the stop that the children get on at. Routes vary in length, usually about 1.5 km and/ or a maximum 30 minute walk. Many walking school buses walk the reverse route in the afternoon.

Funding is provided to help schools set up walking buses. Each school is eligible for up to $500 per route. The money can be used for signs, wet weather clothing and other materials. Assistance is available to get a walking school bus going, including training for parents and carers, resources, checking the proposed route for safety and on-going support to the route coordinator. Starting a walking school bus usually requires an enthusiastic parent or other adult from the school who is willing to act as coordinator.

The scheme seems to me to be a striking metaphor for a healthy society: it is based on cooperation and mutual support, commitment and responsibility, careful organisation and sticking to an allotted role. It binds people together in a common goal of keeping cars off the road and using the cheapest form of transport thus making a contribution to protecting and preserving the environment. It fosters self-help and independence while encouraging children to take exercise and literally to stand on their own two feet.

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