adventurous alternatives

5 Far-Better Ways To Commute To School

Start small, think big, have fun.

by Barry Greene Jr.
Originally Published: 
The Back To School Issue 2023

There’s something uniquely soul-crushing about sitting idle in the school drop-off line. You’re all there together, sure, but it can feel nearly impossible to frame the long wait as anything resembling quality time. And that’s broadly true of the way we treat most traditional school commutes — it’s a harried rush from A to B, too often characterized by stress and distraction and hurry. But there are ways to reclaim that time — as quality time with kids or as free time for parents — that offer genuine adventure, fun, and incidental lessons in self-reliance and independence.

Active school commutes aren’t new. My grandfather never passed up the opportunity to tell me how he “had to walk 15 miles to school in the snow uphill both ways” — a bit of lovable hyperbole that belies the profound shift in how kids now start the day. When esteemed urban designer Victor Dover informally surveyed adults at a public event in 2019, he found that 86% of them had grown up with parents who had walked to school while just 10% of their own kids did the same.

While generations of students walked or biked to class (or to the bus stop), these days the majority of kids arrive by family car. Expanded school choice and hybrid work models that made it possible for parents to move farther out from urban centers also fueled the popularity of the school drop-off line. While it may not be realistic to abandon the drop-off line all together, taking a more active approach to the school commute — even one day a month — offers a multitude of benefits, from physical health to community-building. The school drop-off line doesn’t have to be the thing that gets your blood rushing in the morning, but an active replacement can be.

Here are five adventurous alternatives to the school drop-off line that you can embrace this school year.

If you live close:

Bike Bus

A “bike bus” is a group of students escorted by adults that bicycle a predetermined route together to school. If you live within 2 miles of your kids’ school, it’s an enjoyable — even whimsical — alternative to the heavy intensity of the school drop-off line. A bike bus is typically operated by parents or guardians, ideally two volunteers who map out the safest route to school that includes the addresses of all the students who will be biking to class together. Parents and guardians are always encouraged to join in, but they can also spend the time knowing their neighbors have them covered. Ultimately, this increased trust within the neighborhood promotes community and engagement with the school, such as getting together to request high-quality bike racks at school if they aren’t already available. The CDC recommends children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 are active for 60 minutes each day. A 15-minute bike ride is a great way to get a headstart on this goal.

Walking School Bus

Like a bike bus, a “walking bus” is a wonderful alternative for families who live within a mile or so of school. A walking bus is a group of students, accompanied by adults, who follow a mapped route to school together. It’s a more inclusive option than the bike bus, one that wheelchair users can join more readily, and that ensures the same benefits of an alternative commute for those with accessibility needs or who simply can’t afford the cost and maintenance that comes with a bicycle. Tara FitzPatrick who coordinates and advocates for these types of “Walk or Roll” commutes in Richmond, Virginia, says the barrier to entry of a bicycle is still an obstacle for some families. “The purchase of a bike and maintenance of a bike takes resources. Financial, physical, and all kinds of different resources that become a huge barrier. A flat tire makes a bike completely unusable.”

When asked about other barriers, FitzPatrick says, “The hard thing is getting people to acknowledge that they don’t have to be a part of it every day, and that parenting and this commute can be a shared responsibility with your neighbors. When you lead a walking bus or bike bus to school, and you have five families that get together and commit to just one day, that is still more time than you’re going to have in a quality way than if you drove your kid to school five days a week. You’re spending time with your kid, you’re also seeing their interactions with one another and developing relationships with your community kids so that they feel comfortable coming to you if there is an emergency.”

Emma Chao/Fatherly; Getty Images

Take The Scenic Route

Part of reinvention is turning an entire paradigm on its head — and that’s especially true of the down-to-the-wire rush of the morning commute to school. Going slow on purpose in a high-speed world opens up experiences and opportunities that we fly past every day. If you live within walking distance of your kids’ school and have a greenway, park, or trail nearby, find a day to get started earlier than usual to take the scenic route to school. But this alternative doesn’t have to be reserved for those who live near the school. Even if you commute from farther away, you can conduct the same experiment by parking a few blocks away from the school and walking over together via a more scenic route. Unsure of what greenways and green spaces are near? One resource is the Trust for Public Land’s parks database here.

If you live farther away:

Volunteer to Carpool

Fewer cars in the school drop-off line make for a smoother transition for all. If you live in a neighborhood where many of the children attend your child’s school, consider coordinating with neighbors to start carpooling. The responsibility for driving can rotate daily, weekly, or according to a predetermined schedule. This allows each participant to share the burden of driving and reduces the wear and tear on each individual's vehicle. Carpooling hit an all-time high in the 1970s and has since dwindled in numbers, decade after decade. As of 2013, less than 10% of drivers commuted via carpool.

Emma Chao/Fatherly; Getty Images

Take Public Transportation

If it’s available where you live, public transportation allows you to spend even more time with your child — without waiting in line. Using this time as an educational opportunity on navigating maps, schedules and bus/rail lines will help develop independence over time as our children get older. My first solo experience on public transportation wasn’t until I was 22 years old, and my car had broken down and I needed to get to work — it was a little terrifying, navigating the lines without prior experience, but I learned to navigate the system, which helped build the confidence to navigate more complicated transit systems during a decision to move to Brooklyn, later that year. As driver-license registrations for Gen Z continue to decline, knowing how to navigate maps and schedules will be an essential life skill for children to come. If you work remotely or have a hybrid schedule this alternative pairs well with taking public transit or walking over to a café, public library or co-working space nearby for a change of scenery.

The takeaway:

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be committed to any of the above alternatives daily or even weekly. Start small. Monthly commitments can be something you and your kids look forward to. As you grow more consistent within your routine, take notice of changes in how the whole family feels about the morning trip to school. Is there excitement around biking to school or mapping out new routes?

Is taking the occasional active commute changing your kids’ experience — or performance — at school? Studies by the CDC show that children who are more active tend to have better grades, better school attendance and fewer behavioral issues at school. Minor positive impacts can turn into major outcomes with increased frequency and consistency. Remember: start small, think big, have fun — and most important, build memories together.

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