In the late 1960s, more than 50 percent of kids walked to school. At last count, that number had dropped to a paltry 13 percent.

Why aren’t kids walking to school anymore? Because they live further away than in the past, and their parents fear letting them walk alone.

But there’s an alternative to driving your kid to school every day: the walking school bus.

A walking school bus is simply a group of kids walking to school with one or more adults. According to Safe Routes to School, “It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school or as structured as a planned route with meeting points, a timetable and a schedule of trained volunteers.”

Related: How to Keep Your Kids Safe at the Bus Stop

Some teachers, including a group in Jefferson County, Missouri , have volunteered to “drive” the walking school bus and get the children to school in time for breakfast.

“I think it’s awesome,” Loretta Howard, a mother of two Jefferson students, told the Wichita Eagle. “These are amazing teachers.” Howard has back trouble, so she puts her kids on the “bus” at a nearby crosswalk.

Improving health, saving the planet

Your child has a better chance of having healthy body fat levels and better heart fitness if he or she catches the walking school bus (or bikes or skateboards to school) instead of being driven to school according to a 2011 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Other published studies suggest kids who walk or bike to school have a lower body mass index (BMI), smaller waists and better cholesterol levels. This is especially important, say experts, at a time when more kids are heavier than ever before, with a third of all American children and teens overweight or obese.

Other benefits to a walking school bus include a lower carbon footprint, according to Safe Routes To School (SRTS), a national program that encourages children to safely walk and bike to school. “Returning to 1969 levels of walking and bicycling to school would save 3.2 billion vehicle miles, 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and 89,000 tons of other pollutants — equal to keeping more than 250,000 cars off the road for a year.

Related: Back to School Smarts

Starting the bus

So how do you get started? If you want to start an informal neighborhood group, here are some simple tips from walkingschoolbus.org:

  • Invite families who live nearby to walk.
  • Pick a route and take a test walk.
  • Decide how often the group will walk together.
  • Have fun!

If you’re more ambitious and would like to involve your whole school, walkingschoolbus.org offers these pointers:

  • Contact parents and children, the principal and school officials, law enforcement officers and other community leaders to see if there’s interest and get them on board.
  • Identify the walking routes and test them.
  • Make sure there are enough adults to supervise the children who are walking. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends one adult for every six children, unless they’re ages 4 to 6. In that case, the CDC recommends one adult per every three children.)
  • Figure out the logistics, including how often the walking bus will operate and where children should meet the bus.
  • Involve the kids in safety training prior to starting the bus.
  • Kick off the program, perhaps by joining families across the country on International Walk to School Day on October 7.

Related: Is Your Child Ready to Walk to School Alone?

Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.