Over at Atlantic Cities, Sarah Goodyear flags a video about the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood: a city of 51,000 that has never seen a school bus. Originally a streetcar community with a concentrated downtown, as Lakewood grew it eschewed the sprawl model of suburban life, which builds schools like it does Wal-Marts: in cheap, far-flung land surrounded by vast parking lots. Instead, Lakewood built each of its seven elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school in the growing neighborhood it would serve. Kids normally live within a mile or two of their school, and get to walk and bike through the neighborhood instead of being packed into sweaty vinyl seats as they wait for the bus to wind its way around to their house.
Lakewood is perhaps uniquely positioned to banish the bus from an entire city (at less than seven square miles, the city claims to be the densest community between New York and Chicago), but it holds rich lessons for cities and suburbs across the country. The video explains that most school districts build their schools on the cheap land they can get on the outskirts of town, then spend not-so-small fortunes on fleets of buses to transport the kids from their homes to the school parking lots. As many of us likely remember, this can append up to an extra hour of sitting and confinement to an already lengthy day spent behind desks. As the New York Times recently noted, these demands for disciplined stillness are particularly ill-suited to elementary school-aged boys, whose fidgety reactions to school structure leave them falling behind girls of comparable backgrounds almost from the very beginning. Building schools in walkable neighborhoods may not change what goes on inside the classroom by itself, but Lakewood says that it saves them a million dollars a year in busing costs.
Moreover, turning the bus ride into a walk or bike can help keep communities themselves alive and safe. Instead of funneling children from point A to point B, parents walking their kids to school pass through the entire neighborhood, get to see their neighbors, know what is going on in the area around them. This familiarity builds community, and safety, as more eyes will be more familiar with the neighborhood, and parents will be able to spot something amiss and organize if part of their children’s path to school starts to go downhill.
Walking to school is a seemingly small thing for a birds-eye urbanist to consider, but it can form the heart of organically strong neighborhoods.