Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
The key is density, and locating schools in the town's core.
When it comes to its schools, the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio, does things the old-fashioned way. The city doesn't have a bus system for its 5,800 students, because it doesn’t need one. Its seven elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school are all within walking or biking distance of the children they serve.
In this short film from Streetfilms, planner Bryce Sylvester explains that there's never been a school bus system in the city. Lakewood's density – 51,000 people in five and a half square miles, it claims to be the densest community between New York and Chicago – is key to making the system work, as is locating schools within the core.
"For the same reasons that adults only have one car in their household, it's just made sense because we've adopted the neighborhood school network," Sylvester said. Most schools are only a mile or so from students' homes, making walking or biking the best way to get there.
"We're one of Cleveland's inner-ring suburbs, and we started out as a streetcar community and a concentration of a downtown," said Christine Gordillo, spokeperson for the Lakewood City School District. "As we grew and added schools, it's a natural evolution that our students walk to school."
Elementary school principal Sandy Kozelka sees the effects on her students, who burn off "jitters" along the way. "When they get to school, they're ready to learn,” she said. Research in Denmark has shown that kids can concentrate better if they walk or bike to class rather than being driven or taking transit.
One Lakewood parent said that she and her kids get big benefits of walking to school every day. "It's a big social event every morning or afternoon," says Katie Stallbaum. "You walk to school and the kids are running and playing and laughing. It’s a good thing for them to know what community is. I don’t think they’d get that if we weren’t walking."
The school also saves about a million dollars a year because it doesn't have to run buses. Which suggests that the old-fashioned way of doing things, rather than the more recent trend of building new schools on cheap land at a community's periphery, might be a sensible financial decision, as well as a healthy one.