"What I think they underestimate is how many people are going to rely on MTD. I'm not going to drive up there on a daily basis to drop a kid off."
Champaign's Central High School has 27.5 miles of sidewalks within a half-mile radius, a walker's dream.
Yet school officials say fewer than 10 percent of Central's students walk to school.
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Where does that figure come from? A single-question survey taken of students at Central and Centennial on April 25.
Every student in the high school was given a survey in English class with the following question: What is the most common way you get to school?
The choices: Yellow bus. MTD. Car. Walk. Bike.
The results: of the 838 students who responded (71 percent of the school's 1,174 students), 9.9 percent reported walking to school, and 0.48 percent said they biked, for a total of 10.38 percent.
Similar results were found at Centennial High School, with 10.1 percent walking and 0.71 percent biking.
The numbers didn't surprise Superintendent Judy Wiegand, who has long maintained that Central's walking population was overstated.
"I understand the whole emphasis on walking and biking. I would ask anybody to drive by the high schools on any given day and tell me how many bikes are in the bike rack.
"There's a certain desire to have that. But is it a reality?" she asked.
Walk-to-school advocates, however, are skeptical.
Cindy Wachter, whose son attends Central, said the survey should have gone much farther.
"I'm afraid they didn't ask the questions I would ask. It's a way more complex question," said Wachter, a University of Illinois instructor of recreation, sport and tourism who has organized walk-to-school events.
They include: Could you walk to school? Do you ever walk? If not, why not?
For many parents, it's a matter of convenience, Wachter said. Her son gets a ride to school with his father because Central is essentially on his way to work from their home in Clark Park. But he could easily walk if needed, and in fact does walk home sometimes.
Many people work in downtown Champaign, downtown Urbana or on campus, she said, and Central is right on the way, especially with an 8:05 a.m. start time.
That could change with the proposed school site north of Market Place Mall on Interstate Drive.
"This is going to be very different," she said. "What I think they underestimate is how many people are going to rely on MTD. I'm not going to drive up there on a daily basis to drop a kid off."
Wiegand said the survey was just "a snapshot of what students did on that day, just to test that assumption that because students live close to school or in the walking zone that they bike and walk."
The district does not plan to do any more surveys on that issue, Wiegand said, other than Regional Planning Commission transportation studies on the two proposed sites — the one on Interstate Drive and the one encompassing Spalding Park and Judah Christian School.
But spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart added, "This is sort of a starting place. This is a topic that we will continue to discuss as we make some decisions."
The district has data on how many students live within Central's 1.5-mile walk zone but asked The News-Gazette to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get those figures. The district had not yet responded to that request, filed Friday.
However, its FAQ on the school siting process states that 471 students live within walking distance of the Interstate Drive site. Stuart said she didn't know exactly where those students live but said several subdivisions fall within a 1.5-mile radius of the site.
Wachter is skeptical of that as well and said the north site doesn't appear conducive to walking. Building in a cornfield, she said, is not the same as an "inner-city, walkable neighborhood."
"Given our high childhood obesity rate, the question is not how many are currently walking. The question is how can we enable more of them to walk or bike so they can be healthier," added Cynthia Hoyle of the Safe Routes to School program.
COMING THURSDAY: What a new traffic analysis reveals about putting a high school just north of Market Place Mall.
Survey says ...
District officials asked Central High School students: What is the most common way you get to school?