Safe Routes to School

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Just after World War II, the United States and other Western countries began shifting community-development priorities to favor the automobile. The conventional wisdom at that time was to isolate employment centers, retail and shopping outlets, homes, and schools from one another. Out of necessity and convenience, parents began driving their kids to school rather than letting them walk or bike. As a result of this and other factors, childhood obesity quadrupled over the next few decades.

I manage the federal Safe Routes to School Program for the state of Arizona. Safe Routes recognizes that the built environment creates barriers that keep kids from walking and biking to school. The program provides grant funding to projects in communities that are beginning to break down barriers with strategies that we call “the five Es” — education, engineering, enforcement, encouragement, and evaluation.

In Arizona, communities are investing in an elegantly simple encouragement strategy called the walking school bus. Popularized in Australia, walking school buses are adult-escorted walks to school. Sound insultingly simple? It is.

One or more dedicated adults lead a small group of children along a predetermined route. The end result is the same as if a parent drove them: the kids arrive at school safe and on time. The big differences are 1) fewer vehicle trips to the school, 2) fewer vehicles clogging the school area, 3) less fuel consumed, 4) cleaner air, and 5) the kids get exercise and arrive energized and ready to learn.

Walking school buses — and their bike-based counterpart (bike trains) — accomplish another important thing: they build stronger neighborhoods. Any cop will tell you that one of the most effective ways to deter crime is for people to know their neighbors.

Safe Routes education may consist of “bicycle rodeos” — organized events that teach kids bike skills and rules of the road. These programs are very effective in creating lifelong habits.

Engineering strategies include physical changes to the street to slow down traffic, such as removing or narrowing vehicle lanes. Special crosswalks and signals can be installed that make pedestrians more visible to drivers. Solutions can also be as simple as constructing a sidewalk between a neighborhood and a school.

Safe Routes is about building sustainable communities that invite safe, convenient, human-powered mobility. As we speak, the world is making other arrangements for us. Whether we make our own is our choice.