Making strides

'Walkability' expert helps school districts nudge students heading to class out of cars and onto the sidewalks

By Elizabeth Hume -- Bee Staff Writer
Sacramento Bee, Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Patrick Dolinar was inspired. Fresh from a conference on getting kids to walk to school, the vice principal at Ellen Feickert Elementary in Elk Grove was percolating with ideas.

The day after the meeting ended Dolinar asked 524 of his students a simple question. How do you get to school? The results shocked him. About 80 percent of the kids arrived individually by car. An additional 72 arrived in carpools. Only 26 walked. Four rode bikes.

"That just blew me away," Dolinar said.

Now it was time to put into practice what Dolinar had learned at Wendi Kallins' conference. One of seven "walkability" experts in California, Kallins focuses on schools and the kids who attend them. She was in Elk Grove recently conducting a workshop for more than 30 Elk Grove Unified administrators, teachers and parents on how to get children heading to school in the morning out of cars and onto the sidewalks.

Three decades ago, 66 percent of U.S. children walked to school, federal statistics show. Today, the number is around 13 percent. Kallins is trying to change those numbers.

"I thought maybe we can get to the problem before it gets started by working with kids," Kallins said. "It's a matter of developing new patterns - getting people to branch out in how they are getting their kids to school."

So she founded Safe Routes to Schools, a Marin County group that encourages students to walk or bike to school. The recent seminar was the first of several programs across the state sponsored by the California Center for Physical Activity, a state agency under the state Department of Health Services.

Kallins led her group of Elk Grove administrators and teachers around Franklin High School and toward the middle school next door, Toby Johnson. She pointed out good things - ramps, recessed utility poles and wide sidewalks.

Experts say kids stopped walking to school for several reasons. Suburban sprawl created vast neighborhoods linked by long, winding streets designed for cars, not people, according to a 2003 study by the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

Fear of child abductions and cutbacks in bus service also were cited as reasons parents load up their vehicles in the morning and drive kids to school.

"Its very difficult because it is a myth. The actual number of child abductions by strangers has gone down in the past decade," Kallins said. "But for parents there is nothing more frightening than for a stranger to get a hold of their kids."

Elk Grove school officials brought Kallins and her group into town for the workshop. The district is cutting its bus service by more than half, a controversial move designed to save money but one that has angered many parents.

Now, Elk Grove Unified officials worry the bus cuts will put more drivers behind the wheel when school starts. That will mean more congestion around campuses, more pollution and the potential for more accidents when too many cars crowd into one place.

"If we were able to get more parents out of cars and walking, it would be safer," said John Santin, vice principal of Foulks Ranch Elementary in Elk Grove.

Other school districts feel the same way. For two years, Natomas Unified has teamed with WalkSacramento, a nonprofit organization that encourages walkable communities, in an effort to get more students out of cars and onto sidewalks.

"How do you get people to change their behavior?" Kallins asked. "You start with getting the people who are ready to do it involved right now. They get others involved. The more people you see walking, the more will walk. The more people in the streets, the safer it will be."

Some of her group's suggestions include "walk and roll to school days" - ongoing events to encourage walking or biking to school, complete with rewards. Other ideas involve a "walking school bus," in which a parent picks up students at their homes or a designated spot and accompanies them to school. And there's always carpooling.

Natomas Park Elementary has had success in the past year with its version of a walking school bus. Bannon Creek Elementary in Natomas has a program that encourages children to talk to their parents about traffic congestion at schools.

Sometimes little things can make a difference. At Franklin High, simple fixes were pointed out, like trimming plants and trees from walkways to create or widen bicycle lanes.

When Kallins founded Safe Routes to Schools about five years ago, 62 percent of students in her neighborhood were driving to school. Those numbers have dropped to about 50 percent. She wants to see the drivers at 30 percent.

Before leaving the conference teachers and administrators promised to make changes at their schools. Dolinar, the Feickert vice principal, said he knows the school's proximity to heavily used Bond Road makes walking or biking difficult. One parent noted it would take an adult 45 minutes to walk to school.

So Dolinar sees hope in carpools. He plans to spend his summer mapping out where kids live to encourage carpooling next school year.

"I've been here for a little over a year and traffic has always been an issue," he said. "I'm going to put those numbers (from his survey of students) in a newsletter to send home next week. I think it may open a few eyes."

Talking the walk

"Walkability" expert Wendi Kallins offers these suggestions for changing transportation patterns:

  • Walk and roll to school days - Ongoing events to encourage walking or biking to school, complete with rewards.
  • Walking school bus - A parent picks up students at their homes or a designated spot and accompanies them to school.
  • Carpooling - Always an option.
  • For more information - California Center for Physical Activity
  • Safe Routes to Schools

About the writer:

  • The Bee's Elizabeth Hume can be reached at (916) 478-2642 or

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