Does Walk to School Day Actually Work?

A Case Study Comparing Regular School Days vs. Walk to School Days

Guest Post by Max Moreland, PE, Director of Operations at Traffic Data Inc.

International Walk to School Day occurs once a year in the fall. On this day, school children from thousands of schools across the world are encouraged to walk or bike to school rather than ride in a vehicle.  There are multiple goals of this event, some of which include promoting healthier lifestyles, a cleaner environment and increased safety by reducing vehicle traffic and encouraging pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements.  Plus, we can all agree that biking and walking is more fun than driving.  And sometimes it can even be faster.

But does Walk to School Day actually work?  Are there less cars on those days? Here at Traffic Data Inc. we have a small sample of data that says, yeah, it kind of works.

Back in October of 2015 we were hired by the City of Chaska, Minnesota to collect traffic counts around an elementary school and two middle schools for a project they were working on. The day we were asked to collect the counts was Thursday, October 8. The City did not want counts from Wednesday, October 7 because that was Walk to School Day and they did not want the counts conducted on a day where the traffic patterns may be different than normal.

We saw this as an opportunity to collect vehicle counts on both October 7 & 8 to be able to compare the traffic and see if Walk to School Day actually had an impact. Since we were using cameras to capture videos of the intersections surrounding the schools in order to do the turning movement counts, it was easy enough to just set them out a day early and get videos on both days.

Once we had the 24-hour turning movement counts from both days, we had to decide how best to compare the data to see the impact of Walk to School Day. Comparing the daily volumes in and out of each school from one day to the next did not exactly work. There was an event on campus on one of the evenings that drew a lot of vehicles which skewed the daily volume data higher on that day. Due to various after-school activities and classes that can take place on different days, comparing the number of vehicles on site after school could also lead to an unequal comparison. It was decided that the clearest way to compare the data for the two days was by the morning peak hour volumes.

The elementary and middle schools share one campus, but are broken up into different areas. Using the turning movement volumes, we were able to see how many vehicles went to either the elementary school or the middle schools. With the elementary school start time at 8:00 a.m. and the middle school start times at 7:20 a.m., the peak hour of morning traffic was from 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. The number of vehicles entering the schools is shown in the table below.

Number of Vehicles Entering the School Sites

October 7, 2015

Walk to School Day

October 8, 2015

Regular Day

% of Vehicles on Walk to School Day vs Regular Day
Elementary School 136 137 99%
Middle Schools 439 483 91%

Looking at these numbers, there is a slight decrease in vehicle traffic entering the school sites on Walk to School Day versus a normal day. For the elementary school it is basically a wash, but there is a nearly 10% drop for the middle schools.

Whether this decrease is due to Walk to School Day or other factors cannot definitively be said with this small data set.  However, when I put on my Mr. Positivity glasses I’d like to think that this drop in vehicular traffic is at least partially due to more students walking or biking to school on that day.

Encouraging kids to walk or bike to school with these types of events and whenever else possible can help them become more independent and healthier. And if those of us in the transportation field can advocate for and build the infrastructure that will allow kids to safely get to and from school without a vehicle, that is something we should all be able to get behind.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 thoughts on “Does Walk to School Day Actually Work?

  1. Is it possible that “Walk to School Day” actually worked to get kids to consider walking to school on a regular basis – that more kids also walked to school on the next day?

    It would have been more interesting if you’d done a 3 day count – the day before, the day of, and the day after “Walk to School Day”

  2. I second Amy’s question, plus I have another question–Did the school actually do an event for Walk to School Day? Or was the City just concerned about the possible effect that of the promotion of International Walk to School Day might have on a couple families who heard about the event?

    Having been involved in organizing a number of Walk to School Day events, I think the point of Walk to School Day is more about getting schools to promote walking and biking to school as part of school-level activities and policies. The hope is that parents and staff will see the benefit of walking and biking to school and will consider implementing more policies and programs to encourage walking and biking year-round. It’s a way for schools and parents to “dip their toe in the water” and try it out for one day.

    Few kids and parents will actually change their behavior after only one day of walking to school, but walk to school day is a good way to drum up support and enthusiasm for longer-term interventions.