Getting Schooled on Walkability

Just as every neighborhood should have a reliable fire station, every neighborhood should have a good public school.

Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 2010)


A comparison between a walkable neighborhood school and an unwalkable sprawling campus (Lisc Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, 2011)

There has been a considerable amount of effort in recent years to build (or re-build) walkable neighborhoods. With professional organization like the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the American Planning Association(APA), to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy (LI) — all chiming in with their own advocacy efforts.

Most of the purported reasons for making a community walkable deal with reducing the miles needing to be driven by the residents of any town. This could, in turn, reduce the outlay of public resources needing to be spent on motor vehicle ways, and the amount of money the typical household would have to spend on owning and maintaining their vehicles. These two effects (the ability to reduce demands on tax revenue, and an opportunity to increase an individual family’s net disposable income) speak directly to both conservative and liberal values.

What’s driving walkability?

But, before we can draw any conclusions about the beneficial aspects of walkability we should look into our actual travel habits. This will help us to better understand the potential benefits of revising our public policies, by allowing us to focus our attention on the best avenues for improvement.


Traffic jam in America (Dan Chung, 2009)

The average American household, living in a single-family detached residence, makes just about 10 vehicle trips per day. And of all trips on public thoroughfares, only about 16-percent of them are work related (NHTS, 2009). The next largest percentage of trips are connected to getting kids to school or childcare (at ~10-percent) and shopping (primarily getting groceries) (at ~21-percent). In fact, there are more trips devoted to these latter two purposes than to all worked-related trips combined during any 24-hour period. Delving into these travel purposes a bit deeper, for the mandatory trips taken during the morning commute (equal to 80-percent of all vehicles on the road at that time) upwards of 19.5-percent are related to students driving themselves, or being driven to school. Let’s consider that figure for a moment — nearly a fifth of all peak morning mandatory traffic is related to kids getting to school. And, as we know, we design our roads to handle the peak traffic demands (not their 24-hour carrying capacity).

Why should we really want walkable communities?

This brings us to the single greatest reason any community should adopt walkability standards — to make our public schools walkable AND the center of every walkable neighborhood.

Unfortunately, the primary focus in most walkability publications has been on convincing the typical work commuter to either walk to their job, rather than drive — or take a bus to a centralized transit mall, then walk a short distance to their office. Even though the number of workers in a typical downtown’s central business district are nowhere near the total number of workers living in any one community. Most of these publications (and very few of the walkablity experts) have been looking at children’s travel habits — and very few analysts have been trying to understand the underlying reason why children have been walking (and biking) to schools less and less over the decades.

A notable exception has been the work of writers like Kaid Benfield with the Sustainable Cities Collective. In a recent post, Benfield artfully parsed the reason why our American schools have become increasingly less walkable and more dependent on private automobile use. Such writings more accurately frame the dire situation facing parents and children these days. So, rather than placing blame on the purported, ever-increasingly sedentary American lifestyle we should be investigating how the average American school has become increasingly less walkable since the late 1960’s (when these statistics were first being tracked).

As the typical American metropolitan area has grown less dense since WWII, the average American school district has adopted consolidation strategies, essentially super-sizing schools and their respective campuses. Since 1940 the average school in America has increased its enrollment by over 514% (Ehrich). This super-sizing effort has stripped the typical neighborhood of most school campuses, as school districts acquire outlying, inexpensive land to implement their larger consolidated programs. These massive school campus standards dwarf the campuses of yesteryear.


An example of unworkable public school campus placement from Loudoun County, Virginia (Google Earth, 2013)

As a result, families must either rely on buses, carpools, or personal vehicle to ferry their children to and from school. A startling statistic to keep in mind is that in 1969, approximately 41-percent of American students walked to school — but by 2001 that figured had dropped to less than 13-percent.

Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is the place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood public schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors.

Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, 2010)

Dr. Diane Ravitch, the Research Professor for Education at New York University and the former Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration, has been calling for the re-birth of the neighborhood school. She believes that every neighborhood should have at its heart a public school.

What is a “right-sized” school?

But let’s take a step back and ask what such a walkable school-centered neighborhood might look like. Since most studies indicate that the average person is willing to walk about five minutes to reach many of their trip destinations, it’s reasonable to consider a “walkable neighborhood” to be sized within a circumscribed area defined by a (roughly) quarter-mile radius — that is, a distance that the average person can walk in five minutes. This circumscribed area is also called a Pedestrian Shed. Although it would be unreasonable to claim that the center of that radius should be a magical job center that employs everyone that lives within that neighborhood, it is supremely reasonable to assert that an elementary school should rest at the center of every Pedestrian Shed. Why so?

Using the Boise School District’s Student Generation Rate (the number of children expected to come from each average household) of .67 students/household, we would expect to see 13 students generated out of every 20 households. These students would fill the following categories: seven students in kindergarten thru 6th grades, three student in 7th thru 9th grades, and three students in 10th thru 12th grades. If an elementary school were placed at the center of a five-minute pedestrian shed (which covers about 125 acres) — and with a net residential density of approximately eight dwelling units per acre — there would be enough elementary school-aged children to fill one 200 to 250 student elementary school.

Though this might sound like a much smaller school then we’re used to, it is right-sized to a walkable neighborhood — with one to two classrooms per grade. Three of these elementary schools feed into one right-sized junior high — with an enrollment of 600 to 750 students. While two of these junior highs feed into one right-sized senior high school — with an enrollment of between 1200 and 1500 students. Most important to these school metrics are their ability to form a central part of the lives of the residents in each neighborhood.


The scale-ability of right-sized Neighborhood Schools (image by author)

Additionally, the campus sizes for these schools must also be right-sized. A walkable neighborhood’s elementary school’s campus would be no more than two city blocks in size – between four to five acres – which would be large enough for the school building, a neighborhood playground, and a small grass field. A right-sized junior high school’s campus size would be about four city blocks in size – between eight to ten acres – larger enough for the school building, and a running track & football field. And, a right-sized senior high school’s campus size would be approximately six city blocks in size – between twelve to fifteen acres – large enough for the school building, a running track/football field, and tennis courts or baseball field.

One particularly helpful tool that communities and school districts can use to help assess their own policies in regard to walkable schools is Nathan Norris‘, Smart Growth Schools Report Card. This report card’s metrics rank communities along several dimensions and then applies an A-F grade for that community’s performance.

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3 thoughts on “Getting Schooled on Walkability

  1. Your school sizes are somewhat deceiving. You mention a 200-250 student elementary school that has 7 grades. This means that each grade would have 29-36 students. Your middle school (junior high) would have 3 grades and three elementary schools that feed it. This would equal 261-324 students (29 x 3 grades x 3 schools). Than at the high school level, you would have 3 grades and 2 middle schools that feed it, giving the high schools an enrollment of 522-648 students. Under this model you would need 21 schools to educate 5,800 students. This would leave either many half-used librarians, school nurses, art teachers, etc. or much traveling between buildings. Also the electives that could be offered at the secondary level would be limited.

    Also you mention needing 4-5 acres for an elementary school. Based on today’s standards this is unrealistic. You need:
    – 1.5 acres for parking/pick up lanes. Let’s say you can get half the students to walk to school That leaves 100-125 students that will be picked up. In my district a family, on average, has 1.4 students at a school. That means there would be 70 cars picking up kids a day. Add in the 30 parking spots you need for staff/volunteers and you are at 1.5 acres easy. Is there are buses in addition to cars, the amount goes up even more.

    – 1 acre for stormwater detention/purification.

    – 1/2 acre for building/parking setbacks from streets and property lines

    – 1.5 acres for a playground that has hard surfaced areas, grass areas, and play equipment

    – .8 of an acre for the actual school building (assuming 2-story)

    – .5 of an acre for transitions between spaces (parking and the building, stormwater detention and playground, etc.)

    • Chris, thanks for your comment. The .67 student generation rate takes into account all households, not just families, which allows you to more accurately apply these figures across an entire neighborhood – or city.

      I suspect your figures for on-site acreage are a bit in jest. The point of a neighborhood school is that nearly all the children walk or can walk, with (perhaps) a small passenger van picking up neighborhood children who are physically impaired. The drop-off “zone”, as well as teacher parking (for those teachers who don’t live in the neighborhood), is curb-side on the school side of the street (not on-site). Your two-story school size is also a bit large, at 70,000 sqft (the size of a big box supermarket) the net assignable space would be about 52,000 square feet (in a tow-story structure) – far larger than would be needed to accommodate a neighborhood elementary school. At a maximum 28 students per classroom, such a school would have 196 students (at one class per grade) and as much as 392 students (at two classes per grade) – though kindergarten is typically a half-day class we’ll just count it as a full-day grade (to be conservative). With a standard elementary school indoor gymnasium being 70’x50′, this would leave about 48,500 sqft for classrooms, so even at your school size (and two classes per grade) each classroom would be the size of the gymnasium (nearly three times larger than is necessary).

      You number of feeder elementary schools (to fill up one ~1,100 student high school), is a little overly generous – and mine might be a small understatement. To be precise, there would be 1 to 2 classes per grade for an elementary school, 6 to 8 classes per grade in a junior high school, and 12 to 16 classes per grade at a senior high school. So the number of neighborhood elementary schools to “feed” into a high school would range from 8 to 12. Such a high school has the number of students to support the operation of a number of extra-curricular activities – like, band, orchestra, foreign language clubs, and a wide-range of track & field sports. Even the parking accommodations for the high school are more to support staff and faculty, with almost all students walking, riding bikes, or taking city transit.

      These aren’t the standards used today, by any stretch, but they are what are necessary to make communities truly walkable – and they happened to be what was was being built prior to WWII.


  2. Pingback: When is it okay to fail? | Gunderson Planning & Design

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