Walk On!

More kids are using foot power to get to school

By Charles Pekow

“I was just trying to get kids to ride their bikes and walk to school, because I was disheartened by seeing so many children being driven,” recalls Deirdra Rogers.

Rogers is a pioneer of sorts. In 2000 she organized one of the nation’s first Safe Routes to School task forces at Manor School in Fairfax, Calif., outside San Francisco. Safe Routes is aimed at reducing traffic congestion around schools and promoting the healthy alternatives of walking and biking to school.

Rogers boasts that in three years, the percentage of children walking or biking to school has increased from 24 percent to 42 percent at the 300-pupil elementary school.

She found that as much as 21 percent of congested California rush hour traffic stems from parents driving their sons and daughters to class. So why were parents, most of whom walked to school in their own elementary school days, reluctant to encourage their kids to? The task force sent a questionnaire to parents, with a school newsletter. The answers revealed a catch-22: Parents didn’t want their children to walk because they deemed the routes too unsafe—because of the congestion they were causing by driving kids to school. “Our school is not really on the way to most people’s jobs, so it would cause traffic jams as they’d double back,” Rogers explains.

To get kids on their feet or bike pedals, the project started small: Walk to School Wednesdays. The task force sought parents in each neighborhood willing to walk or bike to school once a week with neighborhood kids. “When it is really rainy or cold, they turn into car pools,” Rogers says of the walking and biking pools.

The group identified some traffic problems and convinced the town council to apply, successfully, to the California Department of Transportation for a grant to fix them. The project includes placing a pedestrian bridge over a creek where children had to share an unstriped road with autos. “We had focus groups to lessen controversy. We had two open houses (inviting the public to review and comment on plans), so we knew it was representative of what the town wanted,” Rogers explains.

Safe Routes Strategy

Despite cuts in physical education programs and a 63 percent rise in childhood obesity over the past generation, fewer than 10 percent of trips to school are made by walking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And exercise and fresh air in the morning can make students more alert, while cutting traffic congestion and exhaust children breathe.

More than laziness and distance explain the reluctance of many parents to let their children get to school on their own energy. About 176 American children are killed while walking or biking to and from school every year. Another 15,600 suffer injuries. And these figures understate the casualties, according to the National Research Council, which compiled them, because they only include collisions with autos.

So groups around the country, with backing from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, developed the adaptable Safe Routes program. The 2002 Summary of Safe Routes to Schools Programs in the United States identified four strategies:

  • Engineering: Changing the environment, such as building a bike path or relocating a drop-off point
  • Enforcement: Issuing speeding tickets
  • Encouragement/Education: Promoting cycling and walking, and teaching safety
  • Dedicated Resources: Setting aside money and finding grants available from many state education and transportation offices.

Learning to Walk

A main component of the Safe Routes strategy is teaching children and parents why they should walk or bike to school. It helps to blend Safe Routes into existing curricula, notes Heather Thomas, parent coordinator for Dallin Elementary School in Arlington, Mass. “Teachers are overburdened by all these great ideas coming at them but they don’t have the time or energy to deal with them,” Thomas says. The school used parent volunteers to help integrate street safety into physical education, for instance.

To encourage youth to walk even in harsh weather, winter classes and art and essay contests focused on polar bears. “We talk about the ice cap melting, the effect of cars on the environment, global warming, and how walking could stop global warming and help polar bears,” says Project Coordinator Dorothea Haas of WalkBoston.

Boston-area Safe Routes schools gave children pedometers and built math problems around them to encourage walking for health and environmental benefits. Principals and janitors got pedometers and students entered contests to guess how many steps they took in a week.

Many Safe Routes schools sponsor raffles, with many variants on the game. Typically, students get a ticket or mark on a scorecard for every day they walk to school within a given time frame. In Dallin’s Step Into Spring campaign, “Kids keep a chart of how many times they walk to school. The more you walk, the more entries you put in the drawing and the more chances you get of winning,” Thomas explains. Parents (and sometimes middle-school children, who can make better solicitors) ask local businesses to donate small prizes ranging from gift certificates to toys, snacks, vouchers for ice cream and video rentals, and the like, Thomas says.

Other schools use other prize models. At Mill Valley Middle School in Mill Valley, Calif., for instance, students get a prize for every 20 Walk and Roll days they walk or roll to class. They may be less interested in toys than younger students, but a coupon for a smoothie rewards many adequately, says local Safe Routes coordinator Cynthia Witwicki.

Three years ago, Witwicki moved from Toronto to Mill Valley. Yet despite the move to a much warmer climate free of blizzards, she found many more children getting rides to school than in the North. “My daughter was in grade three. She would get asked weird questions from her peers: ‘Why do you walk or bike to school? Why don’t you have two cars?’” In this well-to-do community, “everyone likes to drive their cars,” Witwicki notes.

So she responded to a notice in the school newsletter looking for a Safe Routes team leader. “We ran a contest for a better name and came up with Local Motion. A third-grader came up with the name. We gave the child some bike gloves or something like that,” she recalls.

Local Motion had to deal with an environmental problem making it hazardous to walk to school. Local police and traffic engineers recommended placing adult crossing guards at several intersections. “It’s very difficult to find crossing guards. Turnover is horrendous,” Witwicki says. While the school system hired a private group to recruit and train guards in the long run, “we asked each class to take a turn one or two weeks a year to provide two parents to carry a stop sign and be out there with (child) crossing guards. Initially we had problems in some classes” that lacked parents who stayed home or worked near enough to school, she says. “We started this right after 9-11, when people were more concerned about supervision and who comes on school grounds.”

Finding Funding

Parent groups can operate Safe Routes programs on relatively low budgets with support from the school and a handful of dedicated volunteers. But you also might find some outside help. The National Center for Bicycling & Walking reported last spring that 11 states fund Safe Routes programs to varying degrees, and three others were in the process of implementing Safe Routes authorization. California, for instance, sets aside a portion of federal transportation money for local Safe Routes grants annually. Other states funnel their own or federal money from transportation, education, health, or environmental accounts. Legislation pending in Congress would provide funding to all states.

But PTOs that lack comprehensive funding can still sit down and decide what to focus on: a lack of sidewalks, a monthly walk to school day, or safety curriculum, for instance. With school budgets what they are in this economy, it helps to suggest inexpensive infrastructure improvements. The effort at Montebello Elementary in Baltimore found a simple change improved safety: moving the drop-off point for children driven to school away from the front entrance. All the school had to do was put up signs and striping to direct autos to an underused parking lot at the back of the school. Down went congestion and illegal double parking at the front of the school, where students on foot and bike previously had to dodge traffic and suck in exhaust fumes.

And parent groups can turn their fundraisers into Safe Routes projects. A few Florida PTOs bought bike helmets in bulk and sold them, profiting from the mark-up while increasing bike safety.

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