Compared with a generation ago, when most of California's children walked or biked to school, nearly three-quarters of trips by today's kids are made in cars, a new study has found.
The study, released Wednesday, concludes that transportation options for California's children have narrowed dramatically since the 1960s and '70s, burdening parents with driving responsibilities and increasing traffic congestion.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Children's transportation -- An article in some editions of Thursday's California section about a decline in the percentage of children who walk to school inadvertently omitted the last word. The last sentence should have read: "Mothers with school-age children drive 20% more than other women, according to the study."
"By and large, the folks that run transportation ... certainly have not had kids in mind as a customer," said James Corless, California director for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that co-sponsored the 82-page report. "Kids have huge needs for getting from Point A to Point B," he said.
Walking or biking now constitute only 16% of daily trips by kids in California, while public transit accounts for just 1.5%, according to the study. The report, a two-year effort, was also sponsored by two California groups, the Transportation and Land Use Coalition and the Latino Issues Forum.
When told of the findings, some harried parents wistfully recalled their younger days, when children roamed freely on their own.
"I grew up in Westwood, and we walked and biked everywhere. You don't do that anymore. Everyone drops their kids off," said Laurie Havel, who lined up Wednesday in a traffic jam of cars to drop off her daughter Christy at Portola Middle School in Tarzana. "My sister has six children in Temecula, and she just goes from morning to night schlepping kids. It's like nonstop ... a shuttle service."
Christy Havel, a sixth-grader, used to walk to her elementary school. But her new middle school is too far away to walk to from her Encino home.
Parents also worry about safety.
"With all the kidnappings, the shootings ... I'm terrified," said Rosie Ramos, a San Fernando mom who chauffeurs her only child, 11-year-old Steven Garcia, to school, football practice, the mall and everywhere else.
According to the study, the actual likelihood that a child will fall prey to violent crime is slim. From 1995 to 2000, 364 children in the state were abducted by strangers, while more than 17,000 were killed or badly injured in an automobile.
The safest form of transportation for children is school buses, according to the study, which cites data from the California Department of Transportation and the federal government, some of which had not been previously released.
But while school bus use has been rising across the country, the Golden State's ridership has been falling.
In 1985, 51% of the nation's public school students rode buses to school. By 2001, the figure was 54%, according to the study. During the same period, California's ridership fell, from 23% to about 16%. California now has the lowest school bus ridership of the 50 states.
The chief reason kids don't move their legs more is that it's just too far.
Many newer suburban communities have cul-de-sacs, dead ends and curvy streets that add to walking distance, compared with the traditional, grid-like design, the report said. During the last few decades, restrictive standards and regulations have also caused "school sprawl," or the construction of mega-campuses in outlying suburbs, far from where many students live.
In the 1960s, more than half of the nation's children lived within two miles of school, the study said. These days, the average distance from a child's home to school is more than four miles.
A remarkable exception to the school sprawl trend, the study notes, is the Los Angeles Unified School District.
A few years ago, officials began pushing to build smaller neighborhood schools, said Glenn Gritzner, special assistant to district Supt. Roy Romer. L.A. Unified is also proposing building schools near transit centers to help improve youngsters' mobility. "It's expensive to bus kids," Gritzner said. "It's also about the quality of life of the kids."
Motoring children around is costly for parents, too.
In urban areas in California and other western states, children's transportation costs families about $13.6 billion in 2001, or more than $1,000 per child -- more than what an average family spends a year on a child's clothing and health care combined, according to the study.
The taxi chores tend to fall on women. Mothers with school-age children drive 20% more than other women, according to the study.