[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on April 15, 2014]
May 7 is Walk and Bike to School Day 2014 in Arlington, Virginia (and Bike to School Day nationally), but once a year isn’t the only time students can participate in these activities.
Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a national program designed to encourage walking and biking to school on a more regular basis, by providing public schools with grants for public-improvement projects, and by guiding the creation of “walking school buses” and “bike trains,” activities designed to encourage students in active forms of transportation.
Here are seven reasons you should consider letting your child bike or walk to school regularly.
1. It’s safe. As the Safe Routes to School name suggests, safety is a priority of the program. Communities evaluate the conditions of sidewalks, crosswalk markings, and other infrastructure around public schools to ensure safe walking and biking routes in the school vicinity, students and parents are educated as to the safest routes, and the students “commute” in groups with a parent or teacher chaperon.
2. It’s healthy. The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than one-third of American children are either overweight or obese, and the U.S. Surgeon General has espoused walking as one of the best ways to combat it. With so many electronic devices and media vying for kids’ attention, it is perhaps more important than ever to make your child unplug and get off the couch. Allowing your child to walk or bike to school is a great way to do that.
3. It may improve your child’s mental health. Teachers at Keister Elementary School of Harrisonburg, Virginia, noticed that children were arriving at school stressed out and upset from their morning bus ride. Once a week, on days when students participate in Keister’s walking school bus, however, that isn’t a problem, reports Principal Anne Lintner. There’s evidence, too, linking walking or biking to school with better concentration.
4. It builds community. Walking school buses and bike trains requires community involvement in order to work. They are very good opportunities for team building and networking among parents, teachers, classmates, public officials, and even the wider community.
5. It’s environmental. Reducing the number of car trips per day is forward thinking and sustainable. It reduces air pollution, eases congestion, promotes environmental awareness in young people. Furthermore, it can be a component in a community’s transportation demand management program, such as Arlington’s.
6. It saves money (and there’s money for it). Not only does walking and biking save money on fuel costs and vehicle maintenance, there’s also grant money for it. SRTS is a national program that awards grant monies to states to fund the program. Walking School Buses and Bike Trains are fundable through QuickStart Mini-Grants in Virginia. These min-grants allow for a $1,000 award to buy bike racks, flyers, reflective stickers, and more.
7. It’s likely going to be a huge deal in the future. Ray LaHood, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, who hasn’t been shy about predicting what transportation will look like in the coming years in the United States, has called Safe Routes to School an issue of national import that will only gain in traction in the future.
Despite the benefits of walking and biking to school, these activities face challenges. They may not be right for every community. But neither are they urban-only phenomena. Quite often, organizers have found that walking school buses and bike trains work much better than one would expect in rural and suburban communities.
Schools that have implemented these programs have reported that another challenge can be inconsistent community participation. Kyle Lukacs, Safe Routes to School Coordinator at Arlington Public Schools, has said regarding the parent-led nature of these activities, that “you need a champion” to get these programs off the ground, and to keep them going.
With such definite benefits to be derived from kids walking and biking to school, and at little cost other than time, hopefully a few more champions will pop up in our communities.
Photo by University of Salford Press Office