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Posts from the Schools Category


4 Things Schools Can Do to Reduce the Asthma Threat From Idling Cars

Lately, American schools have been pretty responsive to public health and safety threats facing children. Witness the rise of peanut butter bans or the dwindling number of vending machines in schools.

Idling near schools can trigger asthma attacks -- a leading cause of childhood mortality. So why is it considered so acceptable? Photo: IdleFreeVermont

Idling near schools can trigger asthma attacks — a leading cause of childhood mortality. So why do so many parents do it? Photo: IdleFreeVermont

But schools haven’t been very successful at tackling what is arguably a much bigger threat to children’s health: air pollution caused by driving. Asthma is the most common chronic disease among children. Car exhaust can trigger attacks and may cause asthma itself, and schools are where children tend to be especially exposed. In school zones, levels of air pollutants “may significantly exceed community background levels, particularly in the presence of idling school buses,” according to researchers with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Every morning and afternoon at schools around the country, pick-up and drop-off times are free-for-alls of mindless idling, with tailpipes spitting poisonous chemicals into the air children breathe. “Monitoring at schools has shown elevated levels of benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and other air toxics during the afternoon hour coinciding with parents picking up their children,” according to the U.S. EPA.

“One major issue with air pollution is that it is invisible,” says Anneka Whisker of the group Moms for Clean Air. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are four things schools can do to help reduce pollution from idling and asthma.

1. Encourage active transportation

To reduce air pollution at school, make walking and biking as safe and practical as possible.

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One Dad’s Twitter Photo Essay on His Daughter’s Perilous Walk to School

“So who’s up for a long rant/photo-essay about kids walking to school and urban design on this fine back-to-school Thursday morning?” asked Canadian author and journalist Chris Turner on Twitter this morning. And so began a numbered tour of the hazards encountered on his 9-year-old daughter’s walk to school.

It was partly inspired by this Yehuda Moon cartoon:


But Turner wasn’t satisfied with the cartoon’s cheeky conclusion that parents are making bad decisions. “Too often, these discussions blame PARENTS,” he tweeted, “not URBAN DESIGN.”

To illustrate his point, he tweeted “a photo primer in how urban design in an inner-city community encourages parents not to even think about letting their [kids] walk.”

By the way, Turner’s daughter is trying out the walk to school because the 18-block journey, which takes six to eight minutes in a car, takes 55 minutes on the school bus. She’s the first on and the last off, commuting two hours a day to get 18 blocks. It takes half an hour to walk it. Last year, her parents drove her every day, but now they’re trying the walk.

“This morning was my first on walking duty,” Turner wrote. “Spent the entire walk explaining to our 9yo all the different ways cars had been prioritized. Because I want her to have plenty of ammo for future therapy.”

Two blocks from Turner’s house on a walkable street with a sidewalk they come face to face with the car-centric, ped-hostile design he was talking about: this “outsized intersection” with “gas station sliplanes, ped markings beyond faded.”

brightenedIt’s the “first unequivocal sign to pedestrians: beyond be serpents. Cease and desist,” he writes.

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Getting Rural Kids Walking and Biking: A Case Study From Northeast Iowa

This post is part of a series featuring stories and research that will be presented at the Pro-Walk/Pro-Bike/Pro-Place conference September 8-11 in Pittsburgh.

Nationally, more than 14,000 schools have taken part in Safe Routes to School programs. Though dedicated federal funding was stripped out in the current transportation law, SRTS funds have helped improve sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and other infrastructure near schools, as well as education and enforcement. However, most SRTS projects are in urban and suburban settings. Rural areas have their own distinct challenges when it comes to walking and biking.

Six counties in Northeast Iowa benefit from an unprecedented push for Safe Routes to School. Image: ##

Six counties in Northeast Iowa participated in the push for Safe Routes to School. Photo: UERPC

One rural region is trying to overcome those challenges. Ashley Christensen, the regional SRTS liaison for a six-county area in northeastern Iowa known as Upper Explorerland, says that when the state DOT and the non-profit Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative started the region’s Safe Routes program in 2008, there was no information out there with guidance about how to build a SRTS program in a rural setting.

“We know no other region in Iowa had worked on one when we started and are pretty confident that statement holds true for the rest of the U.S., too,” Christensen told Streetsblog.

With distances between home and school far longer than in urban areas and safe walking infrastructure far less common, Upper Explorerland’s SRTS program had its work cut out for it. “Rural areas typically do not have the sidewalks, crosswalks, etc. that urban settings do, so SRTS work in a rural setting has the unique challenge — or opportunity, as I like to think of it — of utilizing what is available and advocating for more pedestrian accommodations,” Christensen said.

The Northeast Iowa schools do similar activities to other Safe Routes locations: walking school buses and bicycle trains chaperoned by parents; bike rodeos to teach bicycle safety and road skills. But they also use techniques that might not be needed in denser areas, like remote drop-offs. A remote drop-off functions like a park-and-ride, where parents meet in a parking lot and walk their kids the rest of the way to school. All told, the programs reach 10,000 students from 20 school districts and six private schools in a rural area the size of Connecticut.

While some of the schools in the Upper Explorerland SRTS jurisdiction are located in walkable communities, others are “located along major highways in the middle of a cornfield, miles away from the nearest community,” Christensen reports.

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Lakewood, Ohio: The Suburb Where Everyone Can Walk to School

The inner Cleveland suburb of Lakewood (population 51,000) calls itself a “walking school district.” Lakewood has never had school buses in its history, and kids grow up walking and biking to school.

Mornings and afternoons are a beehive of activity on streets near schools, as kids and parents walk to and from classrooms. You can feel the energy. The freedom of being able to walk and socialize with friends is incalculable.

According to city planner Bryce Sylvester, Lakewood strives to design neighborhoods so that all children are within walking distance of their school. These decisions have paid off financially, saving the city about a million dollars annually, according to Lakewood City School District spokesperson Christine Gordillo.


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.)


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.

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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.


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

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.


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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