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Rural districts need to consider safe routes to school for the following reasons:
Children living less than one mile from school need paths or sidewalks separate from traffic and safe crossing lights.
Crowded and busy drop zones near school can pose hazards for children darting in and out of traffic to get to class on time.
Exhaust from idling buses and automobiles can irritate children’s respiratory conditions such as asthma.
Becky Williams works with a wide range of community members to increase the physical activity of school children in rural White Salmon, Washington. She is the Safe Routes to School Coordinator (SRTS) for the Klickitat County Health Department. “Roads here can be steep, with parked cars and blind turns,” says Williams. “When I first started, I went to key stakeholders with my ‘Safe Routes to Schools 101’ slide show. They could see the problems and share the goal of protecting the general safety and health of students.”
Williams reached out to people in local government, the school district, parents of students, and service organizations in order to create a collaborative working group. “The time I spent going around to people and groups really paid off,” she says. “Now there is someone at the table, saying ‘I can take care of that.’ They have the knowledge and the authority to make the changes.”
To assess the situation in White Salmon, Williams trained a group in walkability audits and led an audit this fall. She adapted a walkability audit tool to focus on the features of her rural setting: few sidewalks, no stoplights, and steep streets. “Some walkability audit tools can get into fine points like very shady streets, but initially we are looking for the easiest way to provide a physical separation between children and traffic.” To get to school, children need to cross at least one of two main roads designated as arterials by the state. According to classroom surveys, more than 53% of children traveling less than one mile to school get driven by their parents due to the unsafe walking conditions.
Now Williams is working with her group to find solutions. ”There are temporary solutions like restricting parking to one side of the street to improve pedestrian access. We are also communicating with the community and considering discouraging driving on some streets in favor of pedestrian traffic.” They are exploring a crossing guard program to be led by older students who can fulfill their community service requirements. Next May, they plan to launch a walking school bus program.
In a rural area, sometimes safety improvements can happen quickly. For example, Williams’ team observed that the “staging” of multiple school buses crowded one street, reducing sightlines for drivers and presenting a dangerous barrier for pedestrians. The planning group found a quick solution for the problem and the practice was changed within the week.
Williams and others who are planning safe routes on the local level will benefit from the recently assembled statewide SRTS Advisory Committee, whose intent is to explore policy and environmental changes needed to help children get safely to school by walking and biking. The group is led by Feet First, an organization working to ensure that all Washington communities are walkable. “Feet First has been working since 2005 on Safe Routes to School programs,” says Lisa Quinn, Feet First Executive Director. “In the last couple of years, it became apparent we needed to create an intersection between programing and policy. The Safe Routes to School Advisory Committee was the opportunity to identify what we are all doing and how to work together to influence policy and environmental changes.”
Champions of Safe Routes to School can be found in public health, transportation, bicycle, pedestrian, and education organizations. The goal of the SRTS Advisory Committee is to bring partners together so that they are prepared to speak in a unified voice when policy change opportunities emerge. Feet First convenes a diverse group of advocates (see below) who have worked on state policy improvements in the past, such as Complete Streets legislation. One of the first priorities for Feet First is to conduct research about how current SRTS programs and environmental changes help support local communities, advance policy and support collaboration among the SRTS Advisory Committee.
As an example of the opportunities for the Advisory Committee, Quinn cites the new federal transportation rule that SRTS funding applicants for the 2013-15 biennium have a 20 percent local match requirement for projects. “The Advisory Committee could inform city and town staffs of the new rule in case they want to set aside budget funds to make the match when they apply for the federal grants,” says Quinn. “Down the line, the Committee could work with decision makers and state agencies to locate other funding sources to offset new federal requirements.” The Committee will look for any way to help fund active transportation options in rural communities. Quinn sees multiple benefits for the Committee’s goals: “Slowing down traffic in rural communities is not only safer for school children, it also helps adults be more active and improves business for the stores and restaurants located in these towns.”
A near-term objective of the Advisory Committee is to create a SRTS networking group, a forum for grassroots practitioners to share information with others around the State. The Network will be supported by a website, listserv and webinars. “The intent of the Safe Routes to School networking group is to become more strategic in working together with the limited funds and resources out there,” says Quinn.
Safe Routes to School practitioners anticipate the growth of programs across the state. Evidence is growing that active transportation for children promotes learning readiness. Also, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction plans reductions in yellow buses due to cost increases; SRTS practitioners can see indirect benefits to this service cut. There is an opportunity for student transportation to include walking and biking, which would provide financial incentives to schools – not just for the number of children who take the bus, but also those who select active transportation.
Visit the website at www.saferouteswa.org for tools and resources and to join the SRTS networking group.
Bicycle Alliance of Washington
Cascade Bicycle Club
Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition
Transportation Choices Coalition
Washington State Department of Health
Featured: December 2012
School officials, transporation planners, parents