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Dateline Nashville: Students Spotted Walking to School — Outside!

Today in what’s wrong with everything: The Nashville news media is apparently aghast that students at a local high school had to take a walk.

According to WKRN, on the way back from a field trip around 100 students from the Nashville School of the Arts were dropped off about eight-tenths of a mile from school. The students, the station reports, were forced to endure 15 minutes of walking after bus drivers left them at a McDonald’s to attend to other routes.

“As the buses left,” says anchor Bob Mueller, barely concealing his incredulity, “the only way to get those students back to school was to walk.”

WKRN’s Nick Caloway did the same walk himself to double-check the school district’s half-mile estimate of the journey, which school officials said was within the official “walk zone.” Caloway does a pretty good job detailing road conditions that might make what should be a routine activity dangerous. He makes a point of saying the road was “busy” and that one section of sidewalk was closed, though these details are seemingly offered only to strengthen the argument that the students should not have been walking.

How sad that an activity that was commonplace for generations is now completely foreign to much of the U.S. Given the tone of the coverage you’d think these kids flew back from their field trip by flapping their arms.

As for the students, one described the experience as “not fun.”

“It was sunny, it was windy,” she said.

(Hat tip to Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids.)

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The Suburb Where Everybody Can Walk to School

Lakewood, Ohio, a city of 51,000, makes due with no school buses, thanks to thoughtful planning. Image: Lakewood City School District

In Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, thoughtful planning means kids can get to school in a healthy way and the city can save money. Photo: Lakewood City School District

Lakewood, Ohio, population 51,000, doesn’t have any school buses. It never has.

Because of the way its schools were designed and sited, this inner-ring Cleveland suburb doesn’t need buses — every child in the district lives less than two miles from their classroom, and most are within one mile.

Lakewood calls itself a “walking school district.” It’s one of just a small handful in the state of Ohio. ”Our community likes the walking,” said Lakewood City School District spokesperson Christine Gordillo. “That’s kind of one of our brands.”

The school system runs a small transportation program for students with special needs — about 100 students use it, out of 5,800. The rest of the students are on their own, whether they walk, bike, or get a ride (Lakewood doesn’t track how students travel). To transport students to sporting events, the district contracts with another school system.

Gordilla estimates the policy saves the district about $1 million a year, and that allows it to devote more resources to the classroom.

Read more…

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September Brings “Back to School” Jump in Traffic Congestion

Why do traffic delays jump in September? Obviously, fewer people are on vacation. But it’s not just commuters back to the grind getting to and from work. It’s parents dropping their kids off at school, often with even less forgiving start times than an adult workday.

Region Forward, a DC-based livability partnership, shows that the delay is getting worse year after year.

According to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, up to 20 or 30 percent of morning traffic can be generated by parents driving their children to school. Today, about three-quarters of school-aged kids in America get to and from school by car [PDF]. In 1969, half of all schoolkids walked or biked to school, but that rate has fallen to 13 percent, according to the SRTS Partnership.

This creates a dangerous mess of cars pulling over and merging back into traffic in front of schools — with small children walking around. The result: child injuries and deaths, especially on high-traffic streets with on-street parking. A 2007 Department of Justice report [PDF] found that, to make matters worse, delayed drivers often speed when congestion eases, in order to “make up time” and out of a perverse sense of road rage.

“One can view such threats to child safety as both a cause and a symptom of school congestion,” said the DOJ report. “On the one hand, parental concerns about traffic hazards could lead more parents to drive their children to school, thereby increasing congestion. On the other hand, traffic congestion could lead to more child pedestrian accidents, with backed up cars’ blocking the views of small children crossing the street to enter school.”

So perhaps it’s no surprise that this is a nasty week for local traffic congestion. Parents are working out the kinks in their morning routines, getting used to new commutes at the start of the school year and feeling stressed (and driving badly) when they don’t budget enough time.

Part of the problem is sprawl, says the DOJ — but even kids that live within easy walking distance hitch a ride to school these days. Hoofing it is seen as “uncool” in some quarters. Maybe enough parents will get stuck in enough traffic and be late to work enough times to finally encourage kids to get to school on their own steam — and encourage schools and towns to make the necessary changes to ensure there’s a safe way for their kids to do so.

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The Unintended Consequences of Michigan Students’ Bike-to-School “Prank”

Radio personality Kevin "Gravy" Canup delivers a bike, donated by Grand Rapids Bicycle Company, to Kenowa Hills High School in Walker, MI. Photo: Chris Clark for MLive.com

Tuesday morning, a group of intrepid high schoolers in the western Michigan city of Walker got onto their bikes and into a heap of trouble.

The Kenowa Hills High School students, eschewing a tradition of senior pranks that often destroy school property (spray-painting lockers and super-gluing doors, for example), opted to ride their bikes to the last day of classes in an impromptu parade.

They called the police department, which routinely accompanies similar events. They called the mayor of Walker, Rob VerHeulen, who rode along with the cops and even brought donuts. It was a “beautiful morning,” VerHeulen told WMXI, nearby Grand Rapids’ Fox affiliate.

But they neglected to call the school (it was a senior prank, after all). So when the convoy arrived — on time — they were greeted by Principal Katie Pennington, who promptly sent some 64 participating students home and informed them that not only would they be suspended for the last day of school, but they would also be prohibited from walking in the school’s graduation ceremonies. Cue the parental outrage.

One media mini-firestorm later, enough dust had settled for the school administration to rescind their suspensions and reschedule exams and commencement. A local radio host even convinced the Grand Rapids Cycle Company to donate a bike to the school, delivering it in person at a district board meeting to resounding applause.

“Did I overreact? In retrospect, of course I did,” Pennington said in a statement posted to the high school’s website yesterday. “My first response to learning of our high school seniors riding bikes to school on busy roads was to fear for their safety, and I responded in kind.”

And with that, whether or not it was their intention, the Walker 64 have helped draw attention to the sad state of bicycle infrastructure in many areas with considerable pent-up demand for cycling.

“The idea that a group of kids riding bikes to school constitutes a ‘prank,’ and a life-threatening one at that, raised eyebrows among more than a few cyclists, including myself,” said Ken Paulman, writing for Midwest Energy News. “But thanks to the magic of Google Maps, we can see that Pennington has a point.”

This bridge is the only way over a freeway on the way to Kenowa Hills High School. Image: Midwest Energy News/Google Street View

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Blumenauer: Don’t Let American Streets Remain Unsafe Routes to School

Right now the House is debating the GOP leadership’s oil drilling-with-a-side-of-highways bill, which may or may not survive the House floor.

Oregon's Earl Blumenauer has a knack for getting straight to the point. This was the image he used to illustrate his impassioned defense of the Safe Routes to School program this morning.

A lot of folks are upset about this proposal, which would eliminate dedicated federal funding for transit, biking, and walking, open up some of the country’s environmental treasures to oil drilling and delay infrastructure insolvency for all of two years.

Leave it to Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer to really let ‘em have it. The Hill reports that Blumenauer delivered an impassioned speech late this morning, accompanied by this sign that really hits home.

Some highlights below:

This is a wildly popular program, costing a fraction of a percent of the transportation budget, and it’s had a huge impact nationally on our children because it deals with real consequences for them.

Doesn’t it make sense to do something about the congestion, the injury, the death and the obesity?

So why are my Republican friends advancing a transportation bill attacking Safe Routes to School, stripping it out, making it an unsafe route to school? Well, it’s a fitting metaphor for perhaps the worst transportation bill in history.

Well said, sir.

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One More Push Can Preserve Federal Safe Routes to School Funding

Photo: TreeHugger

This week, the Safe Routes to School National Conference convenes in Minneapolis, a progressive city determined to become the most bicycle friendly in the nation. But even here, far from the nation’s capital, in a region celebrated for its massive greenway system, drama inside the Beltway has instilled an air of urgency to the event.

In 2005, SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act) created the federal Safe Routes to School program to get more kids to bike and walk to school by improving infrastructure and creating encouragement programs that make those active trips safe and appealing. The funding for the program is but a tiny drop in the mammoth transportation budget — a mere 0.25 percent of federal transportation spending. But those dollars have been a crucial foundation in building a wide and growing movement.

Deb Hubsmith, director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Photo: Carolyn Szczepanski

As is the case for so many progressive programs, though, there’s a very real threat that the well of dedicated dollars for Safe Routes to School could dry up in the next transportation bill.  That was apparent from the opening moments of the biennial gathering.

Deb Hubsmith, the director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and a key player in developing and advancing “Safe Routes” nationwide, appealed to a huge crowd of more than 600 participants for three things: courage, faith and immediate action.

“As you know, we have some challenges,” she said. “Some people might be discouraged by what they’ve heard about Congress and the federal debt. The transportation bill is up for reauthorization and there’s fighting about what will happen with the future. Some say Safe Routes to School is not a federal priority.”

“In the face of this discussion right now, we need to have courage,” she added. “We need to know that some of the best outcomes come from challenges in front of us. When something is at risk it creates an opportunity; do we want to go backwards or have a future with healthy kids and healthy communities.”

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Senate Introduces a Narrower Bill for Wider Sidewalks

Like everyone else, Safe Routes to School advocates are scaling back. Last year, a bill introduced in the Senate asked for $600 million to enhance pedestrian and bike safety near schools. “We were working in a pretty different environment,” said Margo Pedroso, deputy director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. “Everybody was talking about a $500 billion transportation bill. So we figured, we don’t know what the full bill will be in the end, but let’s go for the funding we feel like we need.”

Kids biking to school in Illinois. Photo courtesy of Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

This week, 12 Democratic Senators introduced a bill to maintain current funding for Safe Routes to School at $183 million and keep it as a standalone program.

Those seem like reasonable goals, but even they will be a haul. The next reauthorization, as we’ve been amply warned, may be even smaller than the last one, given low revenues. And everyone from the administration on down is in favor of consolidating programs, meaning Safe Routes to School would be one piece of a much bigger pie called “Livability.”

It’s also telling that the Partnership couldn’t get a single Republican co-sponsor on the bill. Last time around, they had three. But this time, with everything getting cut, GOP lawmakers were reluctant to “play favorites” and recommend one program for sustained funding. And with the reauthorization process well underway, the Partnership didn’t want to wait any longer to try to attract GOP sponsors. They moved the bill forward with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) taking the lead.

Safe Routes to School pulls communities together to identify trouble spots that prevent parents from feeling safe letting their kids walk or bike to school. Sometimes it means building or widening a sidewalk. Sometimes parents create “walking school buses,” where an adult accompanies a whole gaggle of kids on their walk. Sometimes it means raising crosswalks or calming traffic or installing flashing School Zone signs. In communities where crime or harassment is the biggest deterrent, SRTS works with police to address personal safety.

In some communities, Pedroso acknowledges, walking to school just isn’t an option. So the new bill allows for 10 percent of SRTS funds to be spent on safe routes to bus stops. “In really, really rural communities where kids live miles and miles from school, they’re not going to be able to walk or bike to school,” said Pedroso. “What they’re often struggling with is safety getting to the bus. And they may be walking on these county roads where there are no shoulders, no lighting, they’re right up against the tree line, and there’s really not a safe place for them.”

Read more…

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New Analysis Tracks 40 Years of Changes in How Kids Get to School

routes.png(Chart: NCSRS/SRSNP)

The percentage of U.S. students between ages five and 14 who walk or bike to school has remained stable over the past 15 years but remains three-quarters below where it stood 40 years ago, according to a new analysis of government data by two groups working on the Safe Routes to School (SRtS) program.

Crunching numbers from the U.S. DOT's National Household Travel Survey, the National Center for SRtS and the SRtS National Partnership concluded that between 1969 and 2009, school transportation habits essentially flipped -- with auto use rising from 12 percent of the student population to 44 percent, and biking or walking going from a 48-percent popularity rate with kids to just 13 percent.

Despite the fact that the share of students choosing to walk or bike to school has remained around 12 percent since 1995, the SRtS groups saw a silver lining to their findings: Their efforts appear to be making headway when it comes to shorter trips from home to school. When the data was restricted to students traveling less than one mile to classes, 38 percent walked or biked last year.

“There is a real opportunity to change the car culture and make school campuses less congested if more of the parents who are driving shorter distances let their children walk or bike to school, and those who driving further distances let their children ride school buses,” Lauren Marchetti, director of the National Center for SRtS, said in a statement.

SRtS directs federal transportation dollars to help localities build dedicated infrastructure for kids up to age 14 to walk or bike to school. Members of Congress from both parties have endorsed legislation that would expand the program to high schools as part of the next six-year federal transport bill.

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House GOP Urges Elimination of (GOP-Backed) Kid Safety Program

House Republicans aren't known for their well-reasoned spending proposals lately, but they took it to a new level today by sending President Obama a $375 billion budget-cutting plan that slices $1 billion from bicycle and pedestrian programs.

crosswalkphoto.jpgOne hopes that crossing guard in orange isn't a House GOPer. (Photo: CA DOT)

The cuts have next to no chance of moving forward, given that Republicans are out of power in the White House and Congress. But they amount to the next step in the GOP's political rebuilding process. Which begs the question: Does the party really want to stake its future on cutting Safe Routes to School?

The House GOP plan suggests that Obama save $183 million per year by eliminating federal participation in the program, which just last month was strongly endorsed for re-authorization by two Republican senators.

House Republicans argue that helping children walk or bike to school has "traditionally been viewed as" the task of local governments. Presumably, dedicated federal funding for kids' safety amounts to creeping Big Government for the GOP -- but dedicated federal funding for kids' health care, now that's just fine.

Other transportation proposals on the Republican chopping block today were the $25 million in bike and pedestrian funding given to four communities in the 2005 transportation bill and the U.S. DOT's Transportation Enhancements initiative, which currently costs $833 million annually.

Margo Pedroso, deputy director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, was unruffled by the House GOP proposal (which took the form of a letter to Obama rather than a bill):

Given the impact that Safe Routes to School initiatives can have on children’s physical activity levels, traffic safety and congestion, air quality around schools, and school budgets, we are confident that Safe Routes to School has bipartisan support in Congress.

Late Update: Despite the House GOP's proposal, Republican Sen. Richard Burr (NC) is not budging from his support for expanding the federal Safe Routes program. Burr said through a spokeswoman that

 

I would certainly be disappointed in funding cuts for this program, as I am seeking to increase funds within the Safe Routes to School Program Reauthorizations Act.  This program is beneficial for all Americans because it promotes activity and helps ensure children are able to get to school safely. In North Carolina, this program builds safe routes across the state, and I’m confident the program will do just as much good across the country.
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Cartoon Tuesday: Back to School

bus_preview.jpg

With rising gas prices crippling school bus fleets across the U.S., Clarion-Ledger editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsay offers an intriguing new school transportation idea. Click through to see it.