ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — It's 9 a.m. and the rush is on. Buses disgorge hundreds of students at one side of Bailey Elementary School in Woodbury. On the other side, parents line up in SUVs to drop off their kids. “Bye-bye,” says Silva Theis of Woodbury, kissing her fourth-grade daughter.

In the hubbub, no one notices what's missing: the dying practice of walking to school. Of 620 students at Bailey, not one walks, not even those who live one block away.

Managers of a 6-year-old federal program think they know why. Children don't walk to schools like Bailey because of the lack of sidewalks and safe street crossings.

But after spending $820 million to promote walking to school and reducing childhood obesity, there is no sign the program has actually added any walkers at all.

Parents say the approach is wrong. They say their children don't walk because of fear of crime, Minnesota's harsh winters and laziness. Parents like to pamper their kids by driving them.

And many schools are built to discourage walking.

The history of the federal program is a cautionary tale about changing public behavior, even when the public agrees with the goals.

It was created by former Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2000. Oberstar was appalled at the steep increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

At the same time, he learned that 75 percent of children's trips away from home were in motor

vehicles, up from 40 percent in the 1960s.

The solution? The Safe Routes to School program.

From 2005 through 2010, it was funded for $820 million. Safe Routes gives grants for anything that encourages walking or biking to school — mostly sidewalks, safer street crossings and education. The grants have gone to 11,000 schools in all 50 states.

Nationally, there is little evidence that the program is improving children's health.

In 1969, 42 percent of children walked or biked to school, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership in North Carolina.

By 2001, that number had plummeted to 13 percent. Eight years later, after the program was four years old, the number was unchanged.

Many schools are resistant to change because they are designed for drivers, not pedestrians.

Never mind that the rate of violent crime against children has dropped in half in 40 years and that the odds of a child getting abducted by a stranger are about one in 17,000. Parents seem to be as frightened as ever.

Weather is another obstacle to walking.

Oberstar acknowledges these objections. But he said his program is making steady progress in wearing down the nation's unhealthy, anti-walking biases.

“We are changing habits of an entire generation,'' said Oberstar.  “It is going to take time — but it is happening.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press,