The Windsor Essex County Health Unit is concerned not enough students are walking to school.

It's teamed up with several schools to make sure kids have an active commute to school.

A report released earlier this year found 62 per cent of Canadian children use inactive modes of transportation, such as a bus or car, to get to and from school.

Twenty-four per cent said they walk or cycle regularly.

That number signifies a generational shift because 58 per cent of Canadian parents said they walked to school as children.

'That was the norm, everybody walked to school.' — Carolie Walters, public health nurse

"That was the norm, everybody walked to school," said registered nurse Carolie Walters, who is with the health unit.

Today, she wants kids to do the same. She encourages kids and parents to reference the Active and Safe Routes to School Program. The program is a community-based initiative that promotes the use of active transportation for the daily trip to school.

Safe, walkable routes are scouted by public health workers and Windsor police and then marked by signs.

"It's very important to have a program like this in Windsor because we are a car city. So it does pose many challenges, but with our obesity challenge and inactivity crisis, it's a great opportunity for kids to be physically active," Walters said.

According to the health unit, walking helps build and maintain bones, muscles, and joints, helps control weight and increase energy.

The organization Active Healthy Kids Canada estimates a child would take an average of 2,238 additional steps each day if he or she walked for all trips of less than one kilometre, not just school routes.

Alison Miller, principal at J.A. McWilliams, hopes the Active and Safe Routes to School Program takes off at her school this year.

Nearly half of students bussed

"Our parking lot was very chaotic and  we're hoping to reduce the number of students being driven to school," she said.

The Greater Essex District Public School Board will bus more than 16,000 kids this school year. That's approximately 46 per cent of the student population.

The board doesn't track the number of students being driven to school.

"There is no way for us to tell. We don’t record anywhere how someone gets to school just that they do get to school," board spokesperson Scott Scantlebury said in an email.

The board has 35,506 students and 16,273 of them have a bus spot designated to them.

"It’s difficult to track how many of the remaining 19,000 or so walk or are driven to school," Scantlebury said.

Scantlebury said overcrowded parking lots is a reality — and problem — at many Windsor schools. Some parents drop their kids off in the school bus loading zone. It creates confusion in the parking lot, slows down traffic and can lead to dangerous situations.

"It's hard enough for staff  just to manage the traffic in the morning as it is at a lot of these schools," Scantlebury said.

John Dore, a bus driver, has some simple advice.

"Drop them off in the designated area. Lots of schools have kiss and ride area, so drop them off there instead of the school bus loading zone," he said.

Similar numbers elsewhere

Four hours up Highway 401, a 2009 Metrolinx study from the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area found 34 per cent of children are driven to school.

The same report also found that nearly 60 per cent of children being driven to school live within two kilometres of their school.

It also found that nearly 60 per cent of parents said their child’s school is close enough that they could reasonably walk or bike.

A 15-minute walk to and from school helps kids achieve half of the 60 minutes of daily physical activity suggested by the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines.

Going green

Walking is also environmentally friendly.

According to the Active and Safe Routes to School Program website, if just nine families participate regularly in a "walking school bus" they can collectively prevent almost 1,000 kg of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.

According to Green Communities Canada, a national association of community organizations that help people go green, the benefits of increasing active school travel include:

  • Increased health, including reduced long-term rates of disease and better academic performance for children;
  • A cleaner environment, including improved local air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Curriculum support, including practical application of environmental education, healthy schools, and eco-school policies;
  • A more robust community with infrastructure improvements for active travel to school and enhanced connectivity and quality of life for the community as a whole;
  • Improved safety, including fewer traffic-related injuries among children;
  • Reduced costs and saved time because parents, schools, school boards and municipalities can all realize savings in time as well as operating and capital costs when motorized school travel is reduced.