At Safe Routes to School Workshop, parents brainstorm auto alternatives

on January 24, 2011

Only one generation ago, almost half of all children in the United States walked to school. But today a look at the car-jammed streets outside of schools in the morning and afternoon tells a different story. Only one in ten children now walk to school regularly, with the number of walking and bicycling trips to school made by children down by 65 percent over the last 40 years, according to the U.S Department of Transportation.

Parents’ concerns about traffic safety are one of the main reasons why fewer kids walk or bike. Locally, budget cuts at the Oakland Police Department mean that the traffic police do not start working at all until noon, long after kids have arrived for the day. In addition, in 2007, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission found that Oakland had some of the worst roads in the Bay Area, 95th out of its 109 jurisdictions. Oakland’s Public Works Department announced last year that it would cost approximately $418 million to fix the current backlog of repairs on Oakland’s 805 miles of road.

On Saturday, concerned parents from Alameda County who ride, roll, or walk with their kids to school met to talk about how to transport them safely. “We’re empowering parents to find alternative ways for getting their kids to and from school,” said Nora Cody, the Safe Routes to Schools director for Alameda County. Safe Routes to Schools is a national organization that works with the help of law enforcement agencies to raise awareness of traffic issues and encourage physical fitness and safety in school communities.

At the first annual Safe Routes to School workshop, held at the downtown office of Oakland-based transportation nonprofit TransForm, fifteen parent leaders exchanged concerns and brainstormed future projects. Safe Routes to Schools has previously implemented programs like “walking school buses”—groups of families living in the same neighborhood who skip the yellow school bus and instead walk to school as a group. Parent “drivers” take turns walking along a set route to and from school, collecting children from designated “bus stops” along the way.

But a couple of parents at Saturday’s meeting voiced challenges they have with keeping it a consistent program at their schools. Some schools have a walking school bus route every day, others only once a month. “It’s hard to get people who would be good candidates to just try it,” Cody said. “Many parents are too overwhelmed. Getting their own kids out the door is all they feel they can handle.”

Another idea in the incubator is a “Walk and Roll” incentive membership club. If a student commits to walk or ride to school once a week, they will become eligible to join the club and win prizes donated by local merchants. Cody said the group is also working on a “quarter mile campaign” that would encourage everyone who lives within a few blocks from school to walk.

Workshop attendee Ken McCroskey, the father of two children at Marin Elementary in the city of Albany, said safe transportation to and from school can prompt opportunities for fun. Every year, October 4-8 is “Walk and Roll to School” week. With 90 schools participating, Alameda County joins schools all over the world to increase awareness about the benefits of walking or riding to school. Helmets, water bottles and breakfast bar freebies get kids out of cars and onto bikes, scooters and their own two feet.

McCroskey said his school has now made Walk and Roll days a monthly event. For added fun, he brings in his bike-operated blender to make fruit smoothies for the kids once they arrive at school.

But McCroskey also had serious concerns about safety near campus. Although his children’s school has been modernized, the infrastructure around the school building is the same as it was when it was first built in 1929, he said. McCroskey, who is also on Albany’s traffic and safety committee board, said it’s a dangerous system built for bussing with wide intersections and low visibility turns, and that a couple of years ago a student was hit and injured while walking. Since then there have been a lot of near misses, he said. Thanks to the Safe Routes to School program the school recently received funds to supply two active crossing guards, grant money to protect turns with green arrows, and will install crosswalks to change the physical shape of the intersection.

“There was just a crying need,” he said. “There are too many parents driving their kids because they didn’t have other options or feel comfortable having their kids walk.”

Physical health is another reason why Safe Routes to School encourages alternatives to driving. According to the Center for Disease Control’s chronic disease prevention and health promotion website, since the mid 1960’s rates of childhood obesity have increased from 4 to 16 percent nationally.  A 2010 study by the California Safe Routes to School Technical Assistance Resource Center found that poorer communities with larger minority populations tend to have disproportionately higher rates of obesity and pedestrian/bicycle injury than their higher-income counterparts.

Although many poorer communities are in the city and compact suburbs, making the schools more “walkable” than more spread-out suburbs, low-income teenagers are three times more obese than their wealthier peers, and more than 30 percent of low-income children are overweight. The study concluded that reasons for this disparity include poor conditions for walking and bicycling in low-income neighborhoods, including insufficient sidewalks, unsafe crossings and speeding cars.

Cody said that residents in affluent neighborhoods are more likely to complain when there are infrastructure problems like potholes and faded signs in their communities, but she said that in her experience, because of low parental involvement in less affluent communities, it can take longer to organize change.

Originally founded in Denmark, the Safe Routes program was brought to the United States in 2000. Marin County first received federal funding to pilot the program, which worked with 14 schools during the first year. The percentage of Marin students walking and bicycling to school rose from less than 21 to 38 percent by the end of the second year, the program reported.

Now the program has spread to all 50 states, with the help of a $612 million investment from the federal government. This funding, distributed to each state, can be used for two types of projects: Program investments give funding for educational and encouragement activities, while infrastructure funding is invested in projects such as traffic lights and new crosswalks which create safer areas around the schools.

In Oakland, 23 junior high and elementary schools have a Safe Routes to Schools program, with over 90 active school groups throughout Alameda County. A handful of schools in the North Oakland area participate in the program, including Chabot Elementary, Bella Visa Elementary and Bret Harte Middle School. Click here to find a complete list of participating schools.

TransForm, a nonprofit that works to create walkable communities in the Bay Area, is the lead agency for the Safe Routes to Schools Alameda County Partnership, funded in part with a major grant from Measure B, Alameda County’s half-cent transportation sales tax. In addition to developing local programs that address transit concerns, TransForm lobbies for transportation alternatives.

Creative programs that incentivize parents and kids to try taking alternative routes to school will continue to be a subject at Safe Routes to School workshop meetings, said Cody. For example, in March, Safe Routes to School will host focus groups on different campuses to continue testing their message to find which one best resonates with parents. The organization also plans to have nine schools participate in a new “Golden Sneaker” classroom-based contest, where the most kids in a class that travel to school without a car will win a classroom party.

“The real test is that people have to try something new and have a small success,” Cody said.

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