2001 - 2007 Last updated: 20 Jul, 2015

The Walking School Bus Program (now Walk to School) is a past VicHealth initiative that gave communities a way to get children walking to/from school again.

While VicHealth no longer offers funding for this program, this page is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to establish a Walking School Bus or a less formal walk to school group. This information will help parents, schools, communities, local councils and supporting agencies who want to establish and sustain a Walking School Bus Program in their area.

Introducing the Walking School Bus Program

Today in Victoria, nearly one-third of all children spend less than 5 minutes walking per day. Inactive children are more likely to be overweight – and the proportion of Australian children who are overweight is now reaching 25%. Walking to and from school gives children an opportunity to engage in regular physical activity; yet 70% of children are driven to school even though 80% live within 3km of their school.

With the support of VicHealth, many councils and supporting agencies have implemented Walking School Bus programs. Many ‘buses’ have become a very positive part of school and community life and offer numerous health, environmental and safety benefits.

Walking School Bus programs can be implemented by schools with the help of your local council and/or supporting agency or community group.

What is a Walking School Bus?

A Walking School Bus is a school bus powered not by an engine but by legs. Children don’t sit inside this ‘bus’ – they walk in a group to school, with an adult ‘driver’ in the front and an adult ‘conductor’ at the rear. The walkers are the bus. This is how the bus works:

  • The bus travels along a set route to or from school, picking up or dropping off children along the way at designated ‘bus stops’. Bus stops can be meeting points along the route or each child’s front gate.
  • The service is free. All primary school age children are welcome to join the bus, even if their parents aren’t able to be drivers.
  • The size of the bus depends on the number of accompanying adults: 8–12 children with two adults is common. There are a maximum of 8 children for every adult on each bus.
  • The bus can go as seldom or as often as volunteers want to ‘drive’ it and parents and children want to use it. Volunteers agree on a schedule/timetable.
  • The bus operates rain, hail or shine. Volunteers make decisions about cancelling the bus in adverse weather conditions.
  • Safety on the bus is of high importance. The route therefore is thoroughly checked for traffic hazards, and children and adults often wear bright, distinctive sashes or vests to be easily seen.
  • The volunteer drivers and conductors (often parents) are registered and provided with personal accident and public liability insurance by the councils and/or other organisations implementing the Walking School Bus. They also require a Working with Children Check (police check).
  • The Walking School Bus travels the safest and most convenient route for its passengers. Routes can vary in length but are usually a maximum of 30 minutes or around 2km.

Benefits of a Walking School Bus

A Walking School Bus Program doesn’t just benefit children or schools. It has benefits for the wider community as well. The Walking School Bus offers positive and healthy travel choices to our children and builds the skills, health and experiences of people in our community.

Benefits for children

Walking School Buses can assist children to:

  • get to school safely, conveniently and on time
  • get regular physical activity and exercise
  • gain a sense of independence
  • develop as individuals through involvement in a responsible and disciplined activity
  • experience being part of a group or team
  • learn about traffic safety and good road sense
  • become more familiar with their own neighbourhood and surroundings
  • have a chance to build friendships
  • have fun getting to school
  • arrive at school alert and ready to learn.

Benefits for parents

Walking School Buses can assist children to:

  • feel confident that their children are healthier
  • save money
  • get their children to school safely and on time
  • help their children to get to know the neighbourhood and make new friends
  • reduce pressure and gain ‘extra time’ when they don’t have to accompany their children to school every day.

For parents who become drivers or conductors, the Walking School Bus assists parents to:

  • get regular physical activity and exercise
  • become part of a community activity
  • increase community connectedness – getting to know new people, other parents and children, and community members. 

Benefits for teachers and the school

Walking School Buses can assist teachers and the school, because: 

  • students arrive at school more alert and ready to learn
  • it provides another avenue to involve parents and other adults in the school
  • it creates additional educational opportunities that build on the Walking School Bus experience.

Benefits for the community

Walking School Buses can assist the whole community because it:

  • eases the congestions around the school grounds (every child on the bus is potentially one less car on the road)
  • proves a safer, non-polluting and sustainable transport alternative
  • encourages a sense of community as families get to know each other, and their children become friends
  • brings more people onto the street who are interested in the safety and security of the community.

Challenges of establishing and maintaining a Walking School Bus

In 2007, VicHealth undertook a review of the Walking School Bus Program which included consultations with the councils and/or other organisations implementing the program. The review found many positive impacts and flow-on benefits from the Walking School Bus and found that it was very successful in some areas. However, this review and other VicHealth evaluations also found that:

  • Walking buses are resource intensive to establish and maintain.
  • The lengthy implementation chain, limited funding and the need to effect real change to physical environments outside school provided challenges to the program model.
  • The Walking School Bus is beset by many volunteer issues, particularly volunteer recruitment and retention. Volunteer issues slowed the expansion of the program in many areas and have caused some established programs to cease.
  • As a stand-alone program, the Walking School Bus is too structured and inflexible, generally operates in isolation from other transport initiatives and does not allow for whole-of-community approaches to increasing the level of children’s active transport to/from school.
  • The Walking School Bus mainly caters for younger students (prep to year 4) and most walking buses do not operate every day or to and from school.
  • The Walking School Bus did not make significant inroads into increasing the number of children who independently walk/cycle to school.
  • Some schools do not see travel to school as a school issue.

As David Engwicht (who is often credited with creating the Walking School Bus concept) has indicated, the Walking School Bus was always meant to be a transitional phase towards greater independence and mobility for children. However, he now believes that when it becomes an official program, it can ‘create some significant difficulties, particularly in litigious and risk-averse cultures’. He believes that a Walking School Bus Program works best when it is kept as informal as possible.