Safe Routes shifts into high gear
Bike-to-school program turns 10, pedaling faster than ever!

By Peter Seidman, Pacific Sun
October 28, 2010

An innovative transportation program that started in Marin and spread across the country celebrates its 10th birthday this year.

That milestone comes at the same time as the opening of the Cal Park Tunnel and the completion of the Lincoln Hill bike pathway—significant advancements for local nonmotorized transportation.

"It's super-exciting," says Deb Hubsmith, founding director of Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, about the birthday of the program, which promotes bicycling, walking and carpooling to schools. Grants from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the California Department of Public Health and the Marin Community Foundation got the program rolling. Safe Routes started with programs in nine Marin schools. Today, Safe Routes is active in almost all Marin public schools and some private ones, about 50 schools total.

"We launched a pilot program," says Hubsmith, "and the program was so successful that it ignited a national campaign for getting Safe Routes to Schools funding in the federal transportation bill." It was the success of the Marin program—and the people all over the country calling to learn how they could start programs in their communities—that led Hubsmith to develop the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, which has grown to a network of more than 500 nonprofit organizations, government agencies and individuals working to promote Safe Routes across the country. The National Partnership, like Marin Safe Routes to Schools, taps a variety of strategies to increase physical activity among schoolkids, reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality through biking and walking to school, and promote safety for nonmotorized transportation. These days, Hubsmith concentrates on the national program. She also serves as advocacy director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC), an important Safe Routes partner.

Hubsmith says that over the years the federal government, as part of its transportation funding, has allocated about $800 million nationally to run Safe Routes programs. "I really think it's one of the greatest accomplishments that we've had here in Marin County," says Hubsmith, who expresses obvious pride that Marin "has helped to spawn this national program that focuses on environmental awareness, physical activity and safety for children on their routes to school."

These milestones make 2010 a significant year for proponents of bicycle and pedestrian transportation. The Cal Park tunnel connects San Rafael and Larkspur, providing a safe route for bicyclists and pedestrians who can make the trip without having to contend with surface traffic, which at times has been a dangerous proposition. The route connects San Rafael with the Larkspur Ferry Terminal and with a future SMART train station, making the tunnel an important link in the bicycle and pedestrian route that rail and nonmotorized transportation proponents envision running parallel to the SMART rail tracks from Cloverdale to Larkspur.

In addition to serving pedestrians and bicyclists, the tunnel, built in 1884, will accommodate SMART trains headed to and from the Larkspur station. The restoration project for the 1,100-foot tunnel cost $27.7 million and received the honor of being named an outstanding project by the American Society of Civil Engineers. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was scheduled for 3:30pm on Nov. 9, but has been postponed. Check the MCBC website, , for details.

In December, the county will mark the official opening of the Lincoln Hill bike path, built as part of the Highway 101 HOV gap-closure project. The path offers a safe route parallel to the freeway between the Terra Linda Valley and downtown San Rafael, a significant link in the north-south bikeway project that one day will run straight through the county, providing bicyclists and pedestrians with a freeway of their own.

The idea of separating bike paths from surface streets, creating bicycle highways, finds considerable support among many proponents of nonmotorized transportation, who believe this a significant element in promoting bike riding because it increases the sense of rider safety.

This year, Safe Routes started a new campaign called Green Ways to School. It aims to extend awareness of the health and environmental benefits of cycling, walking, carpooling and riding the bus. The Marin Community Foundation's Climate Change Initiative funded the program with a $175,000 grant. The Green Ways campaign features a SchoolPool online trip-sharing website, contests and cash incentives for schools that show the greatest increase in green trips.

Although skeptics may say these behavior changes have little effect on global climate change, Safe Routes and the Green Ways program have produced tangible benefits. About 25 percent of the traffic congestion around schools in the morning and afternoon comes from parents dropping off and picking up their kids, according to traffic studies. Safe Routes can boast that it has made a significant contribution in reducing traffic congestion near schools. And the benefits of encouraging kids to ride and walk are obvious.

"We've come a long way in changing behavior and raising awareness," says Wendi Kallins, founder and current director of the Marin Safe Routes program. "All of our activities now are related to Green Ways to School. If you live close, within one-quarter to a mile, you can walk or bike to school. If you live too far away, and your school offers bus service, then use the bus. If your school does not offer bus service, then form a carpool, and we can assist you in all of these activities through , where you can find somebody else on your route to school and form a carpool or a walking or biking group."

Kallins says that if parents and caretakers really must drive their students to school they can "find a place that's within a five- to 10-minute walk to school and park there," and the students can walk the remaining distance. That strategy, says Kallins, can go a long way toward reducing traffic congestion near schools.

While the Safe Routes program was marking its first years of success in Marin, finding money to maintain the program became an issue in 2004, when the initial funding expired. But Marin voters passed Measure A, which raised the sales tax a half-cent for 20 years to pay for projects that enhance mobility in the county, for street and bike path improvements—and the Safe Routes program.

The Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) is the county's designated congestion management agency and serves as a sales tax authority. Eleven percent of the Measure A sales tax money collected each year goes to the Safe Routes program, says Dianne Steinhauser, TAM's executive director. That percentage is "close to $2 million a year," she says.

The sales tax revenue flows through TAM, which contracts with Safe Routes. "We kept the original team," says Steinhauser. Kallins and the bicycle coalition "do the traditional program of education in the schools." She adds that the entire effort "is a classic example of a program that works because of the volunteers. This is not a government-driven program. We fund it, but it's the schools, the parents that make this thing work. We contribute money, coordinate and provide materials."

The arrangement has allowed an expansion of the Safe Routes concept, with an emphasis on safe. "We do a huge amount of capital improvements around schools," says Steinhauser, "sidewalks, stairs, pull-overs for people to drop off kids." In September, TAM approved $2 million for a safe-pathway project, which city and county public works projects will implement. "We've got the education piece," says Steinhauser, "we've got the engineering piece...and we have all these other things we do around schools." One of those other things is providing crossing guards. Steinhauser says 78 crossing guards are helping students navigate near Marin schools. "Schools are struggling for funds. We have a lot of schools that can't fund crossing guards now. When we started the crossing guard program, we had 82 candidates [for guard spots. We funded 60. Now we have 125 candidates, and we fund 78."

TAM also is working in partnership with MCBC to promote the SchoolPool program. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission has recognized the efforts of both groups and their volunteers with a Change in Motion grand prize award.

Money, however, still is an issue in keeping these programs alive. Even with the money generated from Measure A, TAM saw a potential funding shortage. To raise additional funds, Measure B is on the ballot next week. It calls for adding an annual $10-per-vehicle license fee in Marin to raise about $2 million a year, given the number of vehicles currently registered in the county. Twenty-five percent of the revenue will go toward programs aimed at reducing pollution and congestion. These include encouraging employers and employees to carpool through subsidies and providing money for infrastructure and support for the use of electric vehicles. "We will use that money to attract more money" through matching grants, says Steinhauser.

TAM also is looking at using part of that portion of Measure B money to help fund school programs like Green Ways and crossing guards. Without the additional money, the future of the crossing guard program could be in jeopardy.

Forty percent of the Measure B income would go to improve local roads, sidewalks and bike paths; 35 percent would help fund transit services for seniors and the disabled.

The success of TAM's programs is hard to dispute. Safe Routes succeeded in increasing green trips to school in the county by 5 percent in the 2009-2010 school year, reducing annual vehicle miles traveled by 635,000 miles and eliminating 270 metric tons of CO2 emissions. And, according to Safe Routes, "Participants in the new SchoolPool program increased green trips even more—by 16 percent." The long-term benefit of promoting a healthy and active lifestyle among students is almost impossible to quantify.

Green Ways gives out three categories of cash awards: Green Ways awards for achievement in the 2009-2010 school year, program achievement awards for achievement in schools originally entered in the Safe Routes program, and SchoolPool awards for schools with the largest participation in the online SchoolPool trip program.

This year, Loma Verde School in Novato won $2,000 for the top Green Ways to School award. Second place went to Manor Elementary School in Fairfax and Wade Thomas Elementary School in San Anselmo.

Old Mill School in Mill Valley won the first place award, and $1,000, in the program achievement category. Second place went to Tam Valley Elementary School in unincorporated Mill Valley. Third place went to Brookside Lower in San Anselmo

Two schools, Dixie School in Marinwood and Brookside Upper School in San Anselmo, won $500 for generating the largest percentage of signups in the SchoolPool trip program. Second place went to Mary Silveira Elementary School in Marinwood.

"I think you will find that the Safe Routes program is unbelievably popular and crosses political lines," says Steinhauser.

And as for the opening of the Cal Park Tunnel and the new Lincoln Hill bike path, Steinhauser has a short, declarative response: She says she's "thrilled."

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