In several municipalities of the French region of Haute-Savoie walking buses have been implemented to reduce the share of children driven to school by their parents.
While walking to school was a quite normal activity in the past, more and more children are driven to school by car in recent years. This is an undesirable development. Therefore walking buses have been developed.
There are multiple objectives for introducing walking buses. Walking buses help to reduce the so called 'Mama taxis', which are responsible for traffic jams and air pollution around schools. They also contribute to a safer environment around schools and provide more physical exercise, which is healthy and improves the attention spans of children. Furthermore, they raise awareness of road safety to the children. When walking together to school it is also a moment to share time between children and parents.
A walking bus is a group of children conducted by adults on the way to school on a specific route which is quick, direct and safe. It is similar to a bus line, with walking-bus stops and a schedule. Within the EU funded project ACTIVE ACCESS (from the IEE – Steer programme) the French environmental organisation Prioriterre took the leadership to support schools, parents' associations and municipalities in the implementation of walking busses in Haute-Savoie.
There are a few steps to implement when organising a walking bus. The first step is to communicate on the possibility of organising a walking bus in the school or to the parents association. Meetings can be organised to describe the concept. A questionnaire helps to find the needs and motivation or even barriers for parents to include their children and involve themselves into a walking bus scheme. The demand comes more often from parents, but also from schools or municipalities.
A second meeting with a group of motivated parents can also follow to explain the routes; determine the possible routes together; and the determine schedules. It is also a good thing to be able to include the municipality as they can, for example, help in funding walking bus stops signs/boards. Communication to all parents has to be done to motivate them to participate as a volunteer 'bus driver' or 'conductor' (and/or register their children in the walking bus too).
It is necessary to finalise the whole process: defining the route, the bus stops, the timetable of the line, schedule of volunteers (drivers and conductors) and also set up a behaviour and a responsibility charter for parents and children. As far as responsibility is concerned the law may change from one country to another. In France, parents are advised to organise themselves into a parents’ association.
The main actors involved are parents (most importantly), the municipality, school teachers or school head and also an association that can give technical support to the approach. The main obstacle to implementation is a lack of motivation or the lack of the availability of parents to help run the scheme.
There is no cost as it is voluntary action. There can be a cost if parents want the children to wear a a high-visibility jacket. Costs for the boards and signs for the bus stops are very low.
Prioriterre helped in setting up five walking buses in Haute-Savoie and is still providing information documents to any person interested. The idea is to help parents to organise it and to get the interest of different actors such as municipal team and school as well as the local newspaper.
In Gruffy, four different lines were created and worked at least twice a week with five to ten children on each walking bus line with one or two parents 'driving' it (depending on the number of children). In Poisy one line was created for a dozen children and two adults being the leader and back of the bus. It works on Monday and Friday morning. A second is under consideration. Some other parents often join the volunteers on the way to school. In Collonges-sous-Salève, two lines have been created and are now organised by parents without any support from Prioriterre.
The key factor of success is the motivation of a couple of parents. The most important thing is to get motivated parents to 'drive' the walking bus and to motivate other parents to participate in it. Without volunteering parents, it is not possible to have a long lasting walking bus scheme.
Another factor is the support of the municipality for stop signs/boards and also communication to citizens. A secondary section of the bus walking scheme helps teach the children about road safety and in many schemes relevant projects have also been organised in the school. The support of media (e.g. press or local TV/radio) is enormous and the ease to which the scheme can be applied makes it a low-cost simple solution to cutting congestion around the schools and one that keeps children safe.