Once again, I am convinced that the Japanese have nailed what is perhaps the best possible solution to a complex social issue. I found this brief article in the UK paper the Guardian:
The author describes how in the old days, school students had to go to the nearest school. It reduced choices, but dramatically strengthened communities and ensured healthy commuting lifestyles for children. However these days, the vast majority of parents in the English speaking world drive their kids to school for a variety of reasons - the sprawl means bigger distances and less friendly eyes to keep an eye on the kids, the lack of community means there are less friendly eyes at all, the lack of safe routes to school, the desire to go to a "better" school across town, the fact that everyone else also drives which makes it dangerous for the kids to walk... in a vicious cycle until we reach where we are today with crisis levels of childhood stress, obesity, lack of independence and dearth of social skills.
Nothing however, could be further from the situation in Japan. As far as I can tell of the Japanese system, at least where I live right now, there is what seems to be an extremely good solution. Ostensibly, and as a general rule, children are required to go to their nearest school. However, there are options for parents who desire other choices. First there is of course the private school system. But parents can also apply to send their children to other public schools - if they are prepared to jump through the right hoops. The whole process is intentionally onerous and involves making your case to the ward office and then the application is subject to further review by the public school board, who are required to give priority to local children. Occassionally parents will try to game the system by renting an apartment nearby and registering this address on the application. The ward office is aware of this and do in fact perform spot checks to discourage this behaviour, and of course word gets around in tight knit communities.
This system sounds like a fantastic compromise between the public good of stronger communities, and the desire to allow a degree of choice to parents and students. It also appears to work quite smoothly.
Flowing from, and based upon this foundation system are a number of other excellent rules that can be and are applied at schools in Japan with excellent results, making commuting a generally wonderful experience all round. Firstly, children are required to walk to school, and to do so alone without their parents. Being without parents, elementary school children are not allowed to ride bicycles to school, and are required to walk. This encourages children to travel to school together in groups. Most children are within a kilometre or so of their school, and even this distance isn't all that far to walk once you get used to it, so not being able to ride a bike isn't such a big drag. It also encourages kids to hang together, and avoids the dangers that might come of having younger kids riding bikes to school when they are going by themselves, as parents to not generally walk their kids to school. Not riding bikes also reduces the potential range of the children, so they are less likely to go further afield where friendly community eyes may not be watching, or dangerous unfamiliar roads. In any case, disallowing bicycles is nothing compared to what happens if you decide to drive your kids to school, God forbid...
In the land of the Toyota, children are almost universally spared from being driven to school by car. Parents are not allowed to drive their children to school. Yes, you heard me - NOT ALLOWED. Fancy that. In fact, roads near school entrances are routinely blocked completely during the school commute hours, and drivers who are caught in such areas are fined and booked by the police. In other words, it is ILLEGAL to drop off your kid at the gate to many schools. And as a result - there is no rush hour at the school gate, there is none of the noise, the danger, the stress or ANY of that - just peace and quiet and the sound of kids laughing and talking as they walk to school together.
I had not really thought about it so much before, but in Japan you really do see children out walking about, playing and enjoying their route to school, feeling the changing seasons, seeing and smelling the flowers. In fact, I see a few on my way to work, and say good morning to them every day. It is wonderful seeing them grow, and there are a few precious serendipitous moments when the weather is special or something happens. I used to take my two children to kindergarten behind my bicycle on a small "Chariot" trailer. When the regular school kids I would see on my way to work first saw me do this up the hill, they of course swamped me immediately. They all wanted a look, and peppered me with questions for a few seconds, then goodbyes and off to school. A few mornings later, they all help push me up the hill, just for fun. Then Winter came, and they helped me up the hill in the snow when I was struggling. This all by a group of 8 to 12yr old boys. There is also a disabled gentleman who likes to sit on his front porch and chat with the kids as they go to school, and there are many others like him who do the same, just for the fun of seeing the kids grow, and for the real tangible sense of community it fosters. I imagine they are a good pair of eyes to discourage any funny business that Westerners are so afraid of when asked if they would let their children walk to school on their own. It is also nice when you know who's kids belong with which adults, and for example you might see a kid on your regular commute with a broken arm, and strike up a conversation in the supermarket with their parent the next time you see them. The parent tells you they have some medical condition that causes such and such, and armed with this knowledge you can watch out for them, or mention to the headmaster when you see them, so they can watch out for them etc etc. In a real example, some school kids knocked out a street lamp here after school one day. After the incident, a flyer was put up asking for witnesses. A few locals had seen them and were pretty sure they knew who it was and mentioned to the parents. Sure enough the kids fessed up and mystery solved. From the kids perspective, you have this vast boundless freedom when you are let loose on your own, but at the same time the kids are in fact wrapped the whole time in this loving, protecting, real (not virtual) community who will keep them on the right path just by way of being there, a community which the kids don't even really notice much until they grow old enough to appreciate it.
You miss all of that when kids are driven to school. You don't see anyone but your family and your teacher. No-one will see your broken arm. Nobody knows you in the neighborhood. Nobody helps you push your bike up the hill, or share a smile and the joy of a beautiful Spring morning. It is such a shame that several generations of kids in the English speaking world missed that whole formative experience, but one can only hope that they will find away for their own children to experience it. It will be a hard task, but undoubtedly will begin with the establishment and enforcement of (1) safe routes to school, and (2) the sense of community that such a system is so dependent on.
Yours in hope...