The active way to get to school

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August 27, 2013
By: Hilary Reeves
Hilary Reeves

Suddenly, summer’s over. School is back in session. The long days of light are ticking downward from their highpoint in June toward the equinox on Sept. 22, when autumn officially begins. Some trees are showing a leaf or branch or more of color.

One change many notice with the end of summer is the uptick in traffic in the morning as parents take their kids to school and school buses return to the roads.

Nearly 85 percent of children are either bused or driven by their parents, according to a report from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Among children who live less than a mile from school, 43 percent are driven to school. Overall, assuming an average gasoline price around $4 per gallon, parents are collectively incurring an estimated $5 billion in fuel prices annually to drive their children to school.

Some kids, however, are walking or riding their bicycles, thanks in part to programs fostered and funded through Safe Routes to School and championed by parents and schools. Some of those parents (the 40-somethings) may remember their own childhoods, when half of all kids walked to school. Today, it’s just under 15 percent.

Shifting those short trips from driving to other modes can make a big difference in congestion, especially at the busiest times of day. But, the benefits to the kids are more inspiring.

Some Minneapolis parents say their kids are motivated to “get out the door” on time to join other kids on “walking school bus” routes, according to Minneapolis Public School’s safe routes web site. The same web page references research that says kids who are active on the way to school — by walking or bicycling — show higher levels of concentration as much as four hours later. Exercise, the New York Times reports, “seems to make neurons nimble.” Activity also helps battle obesity.

Safe Routes to School started as a pilot program in the late 1990s. National funding began via the 2005 federal transportation law, resulting in $950 million allocated to state departments of transportation between 2005 and 2009. This past legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers supported $500,000 for Safe Routes to Schools, the first time the state has allocated funding to this program. Some funding also has come via the City of Minneapolis and the state department of health.

The competition for funds in Minnesota is fierce. For 2013, MnDOT had $3.8 million in federal grants for Safe Routes to School, for which it received 102 applications, requesting nearly $15 million. The funds go to planning (assessing conditions and best ways to improve them), new infrastructure (sidewalks, signals, crosswalks, and bike routes), and programs that teach kids safety, target motorists to drive more carefully, and events that encourage more children to walk and bicycle.

Parents, mark your calendar:  One big event coming up is International Walk to School Day, Oct. 9. Many area schools use this day to focus on and reward kids who walk or bike to school.

So, what are some programs in Minneapolis public schools to make walking and bicycling the safe and easy choice? Here are a few. Visit the Minneapolis Public Schools Safe Routes to Schools page (http://sss.mpls.k12.mn.us/sr2s) for a tool kit and much more information.

— Walking school buses. Like a school bus route, the walking school bus follows a set route, picking up additional walkers along the way. One or more adults guide the walk, depending on the age of the walkers. Kids are taught to stop at every crosswalk. This year on the first day of school, 50 kids joined the walking school bus at Lyndale Community School.

— Bus stop and walk. In this program, launched last year after extensive coordination and planning, school buses let off kids at Minnehaha Creek one day a week — Minnehaha Mondays — so they can walk together the last half-mile or so to school. The walk gives kids “a healthy dose of friendship, nature, and exercise,” according to Northrup Urban Environmental School principal Ray Aponte. Minneapolis has plans to expand this program to more schools over the next two years.

— Bike Fleets. Northeast Middle School used Safe Routes funding to set up a fleet of 15 bicycles. The bikes are used for an after school bike club, safety education, field trip transportation and more, according to the Minneapolis web site. Six Minneapolis schools now have fleets, with plans underway to share across other schools with use of a trailer. In 2012, community and family liaison Joseph Bloedoorn rode with a small group of Northeast students to an event at the Mall of America focused on encouraging kids to be active and make healthy food choices. “We probably could have gotten the money for cab fare from our Family Involvement Group,” Bloedoorn said, “but getting there under our own power seemed more in keeping with the  mission” of the event. 

— Maps. More than 30 Minneapolis schools have developed, with district help, walking and bicycling maps to aid students and families. The maps show the walk zone and the existing infrastructure, such as stop signs and stop lights around the school. Once maps are developed, the district shares them with safety, transportation, public works, and police departments.

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities.