At Stoneleigh Elementary School in Baltimore County, so many of the 624 students walk to school these days that by the end of one year, the PTA calculated, its kids had trekked a combined 14,000 miles - the equivalent of a trip halfway around the world. But at Mills-Parole School in Annapolis, where sidewalks were recently installed to encourage walking, most students still arrive on wheels.
Trying to make kids fitter and more independent while saving the environment, advocates and some parents are promoting a return to the days when walking to school was the norm. They have sponsored events such as International Walk to School Month, which takes place throughout October, that have drawn enthusiastic support.
But their efforts to sustain walking to school year-round are bumping up against other modern trends - families without the time for a daily stroll, too fearful of busy streets and child predators to let kids walk on their own.
"I mostly drive," said Jeanne Walker of Severna Park while picking up her fourth-grade daughter, Caroline, from Severna Park Elementary School. "We try our best to walk or ride our bikes when we can. It's a timing issue in the morning, really."
According to the most recent U.S. National Household Travel Survey, parents of schoolchildren most often report distance to school, traffic danger, adverse weather conditions, fear of crimes against children and crime in a neighborhood among reasons for choosing driving over walking to school.
The survey said that in 1969, 42 percent of children 5 to 18 years walked to school, but by 2001 the number had dropped to 16 percent.
Even at Stoneleigh, one of 57 schools throughout Maryland that signed up to take part in Walk to School Day festivities last week, enough children ride to school that there is a "Kiss and Go" area that includes a cordoned-off ramp that leads students away from bus traffic and into the school.
"We live in a walkable community, but even though it's walkable many people still choose to drive," said Denise Kozikowski, who co-founded Walking Wednesdays while her children were attending Stoneleigh. The program helps students who walk to school chart their miles in terms of how far they could have gone walking across countries and continents, researching the venues along the way. They've charted walks across China, Africa, Europe and South America. This year, they're walking across the U.S.
Since Walking Wednesdays started five years ago, Kozikowski said, "people are starting to walk more and more. They're breaking the habit of always getting into the car."
Some parents there say they walk when their schedule allows it.
A break for Bible study
"We walk every day except Wednesdays," Chris Young of Baltimore said after dropping off her fourth-grade daughter, Raley, at Stoneleigh. "On Wednesdays I have to go to Bible study."
Robin Peters of Severna Park walks her two daughters to elementary school each day, but said she understands that some parents can't.
"I don't live as far away from the school as other people," she said, "and I don't go to work afterwards. For a lot of the parents that have to work, it's just easier to drop them off."
Peters said that she has seen an increase in walkers since Severna Park Elementary began taking part in International Walk to School activities last school year. This year, teachers at the school count the number of students who walked, and the results are charted in the cafeteria.
"The parents really enjoyed it and said they wanted to make more of a concerted effort to do it," said Peters. "However, once the cold weather comes in it's harder to do it."
Geoffrey Casey, assistant principal at Mills-Parole Elementary School in Annapolis, said that many students at the school abandoned school buses for walking two years ago, after the city placed sidewalks on Forest Drive, one of the main roads that lead to the school. He said about 30 percent of the school's 500 students walk to school.
"The bus route is far away, so it had been kind of scary or intimidating to walk" without sidewalks, Casey said. "But now they feel a little safer."
International Walk to School Month is spearheaded by the National Center for Safe Routes to School, based in North Carolina.
Caroline Dickson, a spokeswoman for the center, said that the U.S. held its first International Walk to School Day in 1997 in Chicago. The day was subsequently extended to a month to accommodate schools across the world, and some children now reserve their one-day walk for Halloween night.
With 57 schools registering to participate in International Walk to School Day activities, Maryland had the most among Mid-Atlantic states, outpacing Pennsylvania (42), Virginia (34) and Delaware (7). Michigan tops the list with 446, but officials say that some schools that take part do not register.
Local walk-to-school activities vary.