In a car-centered city like Los Angeles, walking can be a thrill.
At least, that’s how Valery Sifuentes, 10, felt. On Wednesday morning, she strolled down Echo Park Avenue toward school in hot pink Skechers. “Walking is so much more exercise than driving,” she said, as an Uber driver paused to honk in support. “And it’s actually funner!”
Usually, her mother drives her from Cypress Park straight to Elysian Heights Elementary in Echo Park. But Wednesday morning was a little different. Valery and her mother joined dozens of other parents and walked the last half-mile to school in a community parade of sorts.
The Echo Park group was among more than 100 throughout Los Angeles and thousands nationwide and abroad participating Wednesday in Walk to School Day. The initiative was created in 1997. Since then, schools across the country have used Walk to School Day to promote healthy transportation alternatives and a sense of community. This year, Los Angeles nearly doubled its participation, with support from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
While the idea of walking to school in Los Angeles’ car culture may seem counterintuitive, the city actually is way above the national average on walking to school. Transportation activist Jessica Meaney, who joined the walk through her neighborhood, said the pressing local challenge is not a lack of students walking to school, but insufficient dollars supporting student transportation needs.
“People say nobody walks in L.A., but you look at the data and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said. Nationwide, 11% of students walk to school. In Los Angeles County, nearly a third do so.
Part of the problem, Meaney said, is that commuting professionals -- and not students -- tend to dictate transportation options. “We are such a highly urbanized region where our students walk or train to school for a variety of reasons,” said Meaney, who runs a local transportation nonprofit called Investing in Place. “Our students are doing it; we just haven’t met them with the infrastructure that students deserve.”
Elysian Heights Principal Emilio Garza estimates about a third of his students walk to school -- and he thinks the number is on the rise. This was the first year that the school participated in the Walk to School as part of its focus on health and wellness.
The transportation question is acute to Garza, whose school is located in a rapidly gentrifying area. As a result of declining enrollments, Elysian Heights combined its kindergarten and first-grade classes in 2007 and opened its doors to students in other neighborhoods.
When Garza recruits parents in the neighborhood to his school, he uses its proximity -- and the opportunity to walk -- as a selling point. The efforts seem to be paying off: There are more than 50 students enrolled in early education this year, and they fill three classes.
Not everyone on the walk was convinced. “I don’t like walking too much,” said Erianna Ramirez, a bashful first-grader.
Her mother, Erika, walked in elevated wedges outfitted for her workday as she encouraged her daughter to reconsider. “It’s a good way for them to get exercise throughout the day,” she said. Getting out of the car meant students can “see the community and the families” that make up their neighborhood.
Yuni Howie, who usually takes the Dash bus from where she lives closer to downtown, said the social element was also important to her. “It’s fun getting to know all the moms walking,” she said. Her son Eli, a kindergartner, was ambitious. His only disappointment? He wanted to walk even further.