By Robert Ping, WALC Institute Executive Director (Originally published in May 2015 WALC Institute newsletter)
In 1969, eight out of 10 kids walked or biked to school. Nowadays, only three out of 10 do, and the number is even lower in neighborhoods that aren’t “walkable.” What happened? Well, a lot, including that we’ve been building bigger schools, which forces many new schools out onto the edge of town, too far to walk or bike; we’ve become more focused on scary concepts like “stranger danger,” even though rates of violent crime have consistently decreased since 1978, and we’ve built streets and towns to maximize automobile speeds, resulting too often in fast, wide, sprawling streets that don’t feel safe or secure for our children.
But a movement to change all of that has been taking root in the U.S.: it is called Safe Routes to School and it is an approach to creating better walking and bicycling conditions between schools and the neighborhoods they serve, teaching kids how to safely navigate streets, and encouraging parents to let their kids out the door in the morning on foot or bicycle.
Progress: personally gratifying
My love for bikes started when I was eight and rode a bike for the first time. I felt free and powerful and I loved the wind in my face when I rode my bike. (I also looked super cool with sunglasses, driving gloves, and a stick shift on the bike. Okay, well, at least I thought I looked cool.)
Perhaps this early experience is what sparked my lifetime dedication to improving walking and bicycling conditions for all. Over the past couple of decades I have been lucky enough to help hundreds of communities throughout the country build their own Safe Routes programs, policies and projects; manage bicycle safety education programs that reached thousands of students; direct Earn-a-Bike and riding programs for underprivileged youth; and serve on the congressional Safe Routes task force. These days, I get to travel all over the U.S. and Canada, speaking about walking and biking, and facilitating technical workshops.
Given this, you can imagine how gratified I am to know that more than 14,000 schools nationwide are now participating in Safe Routes to School. This month, the movement gets a shot in the arm from National Bike Month and National Bike to School Day. More kids than ever are walking and biking to school during special bike events this month. Indeed, since the launch of the movement, we have seen a promising shift in how kids get to and from school. For example, in 2004, I managed the launch of Portland's Safe Routes program; it started with eight schools and now includes more than 80. Forty percent of Portland's students now walk and bike to school! It isn't 1969 again, but those are decent numbers, and other communities are making the changes needed to achieve similar, or better, results.
Taking Safe Routes to the next level
The movement has arrived. I think we have hit the national tipping point, frankly.
Now it is time to take Safe Routes to the next level. Building on the many successes already achieved, schools and school districts that already have launched Safe Routes efforts are now ready to tackle issues of sustainability, long-term funding, strategies for implementing future projects, and capturing the outcomes of their efforts and communicating those outcomes to their communities. Some Safe Routes schools already are doing so, and the results are phenomenal.
For those that need help with taking their program to the next level, the WALC Institute is here to help. Through our “Advanced Safe Routes to School” technical assistance and training, we can help schools and school districts achieve their long-term Safe Routes goals. We would love to talk with you about opportunities to work together, or to hear about your success stories. Please call or email anytime. And in the meantime, perhaps we will be lucky enough to see you on the street!