Students need safe routes to bus stops and to schools

Plenty of Charlotte-Mecklenburg school parents are in for a surprise when they get their children's school bus assignments in August. To save on soaring gasoline expenditures, the public school system plans fewer school bus stops, farther from many kids' homes.

It's hard to blame CMS for this. The rising cost of gas is forcing some not-always- ideal changes, as it is in many families' budgets.

The old practice had buses typically picking up kids less than one-tenth of a mile from home. For 2008-09 the stops will be up to two-tenths of a mile (roughly a five-minute walk) from elementary students' homes, and up to four-tenths of a mile (a 10-minute walk) from middle- and high school students' homes.

Some parents will complain, and in many cases, they'll have good reason. That's not because children shouldn't be expected to walk – many need more exercise – but because in too many places in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County neighborhoods are unsafe or uncomfortable or both for people trying to walk anywhere.

Ideally, many more students would be walking or biking rather than taking the bus. In many cases they can't, because there are no sidewalks or crosswalks or pedestrian signals or crossing guards. Providing those things is a city responsibility, and the city's budget for them has been laughably inadequate. Parents should press not the school system but Charlotte city officials for improvements.

Yet CMS in some cases has been an impediment as well. Some principals discourage or even forbid kids to walk or bike to school, even with parental accompaniment, out of fear for their safety. Nor has the school system championed the concept of kids walking or biking to school and insisted the city improve its ways.

The best solution, long-term, is for the city, the towns and the schools to work together to solve this problem. The municipalities should tame wide and dangerous streets and re-fit scary intersections. They should find money to hire enough crossing guards. Most important, they should build and adequately maintain sidewalks. And CMS must keep pedestrian access in mind when designing schools. Eventually thousands more students in the county should be able to walk safely to a school bus stop or – better yet – to school itself.