ISSUE OF THE MONTH: SAFE ROUTES TO SCHOOL
Walking to school used to be as common a ritual as children flocking to the candy store (remember the refrain, "I used to walk 2 miles uphill in the snow to get to school…"). Just 25 years ago more than 70% of all children strapped on their backpacks and made the journey to school by human power. What a difference a generation makes; close to 80% of all children now get driven to school today, many living just a few blocks from the school. Parents cite concerns about safety, their busy schedules and the simple habit of driving everywhere as some of the reasons behind driving their children.
This simple change of habit is having profound environmental and health consequences, both locally and globally. Driving has emerged as the number one issue behind global warming and the rise of carbon dioxide levels; up to 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions in many parts of California are caused by cars. (For every mile driven by a gas-using car, one pound of carbon dioxide is emitted.) Local pollution around schools has also risen as parents make the twice-daily trips to and from school. Inactive children also contribute to an alarming rise in obesity; there are more than three times as many overweight kids today as there were 25 years ago.
The Safe Routes to Schools program is working hard to reverse this trend. This innovative program aims to increase the number of children walking and bicycling to school by offering a menu of activities that engage the entire community and address the numerous concerns that parents cite when not letting their kids walk to school. To address safety concerns, for example, Safe Routes coordinators organize a Walk Audit, in which engineers, parents and City officials walk around the school area and look at trouble spots deemed as unsafe - and brainstorm on infrastructural changes to make these areas safer.
Originally founded in Denmark, the program was brought to the United States in 2000 largely through the efforts of Wendi Kallins, who continues to work on Safe Routes to Schools efforts. "Marin County initially received federal funding to pilot test the program, working with 14 schools during the first year. The response was phenomenal; numbers rose from less than 21% walking and bicycling to 38% who got out of their cars by the end of the second year," she said.
Now the program has spread to all 50 states, thanks to a $612 million dollar investment from the federal government. This funding, doled out to each state government, can be used for two types of projects. Program investments give funding for educational and encouragement activities, while infrastructure funding invests in projects such as traffic lights and new crosswalks - which create safer areas around the schools.
Many states now have impressive programs, finding creative ways to encourage kids to walk and bike to school. Their successes are largely based on an amazing array of partnerships, from Public Health departments helping with educational efforts to police officers aiding in the enforcement component to community-based organizations conducting bike education programs. Though the programs vary according to the population of the area, some signature efforts are replicated in many states because of their success rate:
Walk to School Day: This international celebration, held during the first week of October, kicks off the year's program activities. The idea began in England and was brought to the U.S. in 2002, with children, parents, teachers and community leaders in all 50 states joining nearly 3 million walkers around the world last year.
Walking School Buses: The Walking School Bus is a proven and tested method using the simple strategy of encouraging children from the same neighborhood to walk to school in groups supervised by parents or other adults. The parents or "drivers" volunteer to take turns walking along a set route to and from school, collecting children from designated "bus stops" along the way. They eliminate the excuse that many parents have that they do not have the time to walk with their children to school, while many children see this time as a play date before and after school. Some parents have even organized "bike trains", groups of children riding their bikes to school. "Walking School Buses are a wonderful way to address safety concerns because it's much safer to walk in groups. Parents also love it because sometimes they don't have time to walk with their kids to school, so they drop their kids off and walk with me," says Ken McCrosky, a Walking School Bus leader at Marin Elementary School in Albany.
California has an especially strong Safe Routes to Schools program, with more than $48 million in funding during this year alone going to Safe Routes infrastructure projects. To support programmatic activities, the Safe Routes to Schools Alameda County Partnership received close to $1 million dollars in funding from ACTIA (Alameda County Transportation Infrastructure Authority) and Kaiser Permanente to make walking and biking to school safer and more convenient for families in Alameda County.
The program partners with a number of organizations, including the Alameda County Health Department, Cycles of Change, Alta Planning and the Cities of Berkeley, Albany, Oakland and others. While offering traditional Safe Routes to Schools tools such as bicycle and pedestrian safety programs and Walk to School Day events, the program also features innovative components that address obstacles for walking and biking in an urban setting. Such features include trainings for parents and teachers on how to talk to children about handling situations that arise when walking in urban areas. They also encourage and help to organize carpooling and taking the bus for those students who live too far to walk or bike.
Since pilot testing the program two years ago, their work has spread to close to 50 schools, including the following:
• A partnership with the non-profit Cycles of Change, which teaches upper elementary and middle school children about bicycle safety in and after school students;
• A fun and engaging school-wide puppet show that more than 2,000 students saw last year,
• A recently-completed Teachers Guide with standards-based lesson plans for grade K-5.
"Schools and parents are so hungry for ways to get kids more active in a safe, fun way. The Safe Routes to Schools Program is a fantastic way to do this while also addressing key issues of safety and the environment" says Program Director Nora Cody. The program is a perfect complement to the Green Activities at your school. So dust off those walking shoes or bicycle, grab a few kids in the neighborhood and join in the revolution! It's as easy as picking up your feet and walking out the door with your children to school.
Interested in learning if your school offers a Safe Routes to Schools program?
You can contact the California Coordinator Joyce Parks (firstname.lastname@example.org) If the county that you live in does not currently house a Safe Routes coordinator, you can still organize a few activities just to get started. You can download a Safe Routes to Schools toolkit from the Marin County website: http://www.saferoutestoschools.org/index.shtml
Other websites are also useful in getting a program off the ground:
For more information about the Alameda County program, contact Nora Cody: email@example.com