Not so long ago, kids walked and biked to their neighborhood school as a matter of course. Now, there’s a federal government program that spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to prod students and parents to do what used to be second nature: bike and walk to school.
An estimated 42 percent of America’s school-age children walked or biked to school in 1969; today that number is an astonishing 13 percent. Many families find that walking or biking to school is a luxury they can’t afford while juggling two jobs, daycare schedules and extracurricular activities. And, unlike 40 years ago, concerns about young children walking to school alone are an important deciding factor in many parents’ decision to drive or bus kids to school. Nevertheless, Congress voted to ignore these realities in 2005 when designing the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program “to reverse the decline in children walking and bicycling to schools”.
Proponents of the Safe Routes program position it as a response to: childhood obesity; eliminating rush hour congestion; and, improving safety for children who walk or bike to school. Nationally, nearly $1 billion has been disbursed in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. In Minnesota, some 89 communities have received nearly $11 million to get more students literally on the right path before and after school. The Minnesota Department of Health even offers a 24 page handbook with helpful guidelines and strategies for walking and biking to school for the more than 180 schools participating statewide.
“SRTS is meant to retrofit communities to fix safety problems and allow more kids to bike and walk to school,” said Lisa Bender, who oversees SRTS at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). “This is just one part of the solution.”
SRTS pedals some programs that could make getting to school under your own power seem as much of an obligation as fun. Recommendations include walking school busses,international walk or bike to school day and bicycle trains. A 33 page Walking School Bus Manual from Rochester, Minnesota schools includes an equipment checklist (reflective safety vests, walkie-talkies and pedometers) and creative names for each walk-day (Marvelous Moving Mondays, Talk and Trek Tuesdays, Wild Walking Wednesdays and so on).
“Safe Routes Minnesota takes a holistic approach to all these problems, creating a positive effect on neighborhood and school communities through a simple solution: helping children walk and bike to school via safe routes,” according to the SRTS website. “When this happens, neighborhoods reap the benefits instantly – children, parents, neighbors, plants, animals and the air all become healthier and happier.”
Sidewalks, signs, safety zones, promotional and implementation plans, both on and off school grounds, qualify for funding—everything from “traffic calming projects” to bicycle rodeos. The City of Eyota was awarded $355,000 to connect city sidewalks, extend a trail, and install “handicap accessible curbs to allow all ages and abilities to benefit from a safe walking path to the schools”. St. Louis County got the green light to spend $35,000 for two mobile speed monitors for use on county roads near schools. The City of Rochester received $80,000 for a “driver feedback and traffic calming project” that included a “pilot walking school bus project.”
If you’re a parent with concerns about child abduction, the feds have developed talking points for that and other likely questions. “You can walk the route with your child and make sure he knows people along the way. The neighbors along the route are (will be) aware that it is a safe route and are there to help. Also, if your child walks with a group of children or in a walking school bus, he or she will be safer from strangers. Most importantly, be sure your child knows not to talk to strangers and to run for help if he feels threatened. Strangers really shouldn’t be a problem.”
It’s not clear how many more Minnesota kids walk and bike to school as a result of $11 million in funding poured into the state during the past seven years. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, which manages Minnesota’s program, began requiring before and after surveys in 2011, but has no feedback yet. Nationally, proponents say SRTS programs “can increase walking and bicycling by 20 to 200%” and cite a “5% increase in neighborhood walkability, which looks at the completeness of the sidewalk network, safety of street crossings, directness of routes and other measures.”
Officials at Red Pine Elementary in Eagan credit a $10,000 SRTS grant in part for a decrease in car drop-offs, safety improvements and an increase in the number of students walking and biking to the Twin Cities suburban school.
“Did the grant have an impact on that? Absolutely,” said Gary Anger, Red Pine Elementary principal. “So did the other things we did after that. It’s a combination of the grant and multiple strategies.”
State officials did track the results of six regional training workshops held last year with 101 participants in attendance. Surveys showed “participants all indicated an increase in their understanding of assembling a team, assessment, goal setting and the 5 E’s” (evaluation, engineering, education, encouragement and enforcement).
Minnesota also hosted the third Safe Routes to School National Conference last August, drawing more than 600 participants from around the country. The conference featured an outdoor summer evening reception with live jazz, food and drinks, highlighted by a flash mob scene “Ped Safety Dance” with fifty participants. “We had a fun time busting moves and cheering for pedestrian safety. Hey – it takes music to make a movement!” according to the SRTS National Partnership website.
Yet the opposition to the program in one southeastern Minnesota city has proven to be an embarrassment. When MnDOT announced that the community of Goodview was awarded a $282,000 grant last fall, residents pressed city officials to reject it.
“It’s just the thought that they’re going to throw this money away,” said Greg Gabbert, who lives on a street in the planned construction zone. “We live there and see there are no kids walking to school. It’s a K through fourth grade school. How many parents are letting kids that age walk to school in this day? Not many.”
After a contentious communitywide debate, the city council voted to accept the federal grant. Though the mayor opposed it, other city officials view it as a benefit for both the city and school.
”I am clearly in favor of it,” said Dan Matejka, Goodview City Administrator. “It’s a betterment for the community and perhaps the start of a whole sidewalk plan for the city because we have very limited sidewalks in Goodview.”
Following the controversy, MnDOT added another requirement that will accompany the $900,000 in new grants to be announced this month: a resolution of support from the local governing body that receives the grant.
With SRTS currently facing reauthorization in Washington, the House of Representatives has voted to repeal the program, while the Senate still hopes to pave the way for its continuation in the transportation bill. Either way, it’s safe to say that millions of American school children will find their way to and from school each day. It’s unclear, however, whether there’s a “safe route” out of the conference committee underway for a program that’s already cost taxpayers $948 million through last fiscal year.
Tips or comments? Contact Tom Steward at 612-354-2192.