More than 70 transportation planners, health policy advocates, and representatives from school districts across the Washington region came together on October 29 to discuss ways to make it easier and safer for children to walk and bike to and from school.
The Transportation Planning Board's Bicycle and Pedestrian Subcommittee teamed with the Greater Washington D.C. Region Safe Routes to School Network to host the regional meeting to share ideas, raise awareness, and build momentum behind Safe Routes to School programs in the region. The meeting featured presentations highlighting current Safe Routes to School activities in the region, and the benefits of Safe Routes to School programs for both students and communities.
Safe Routes to School programs focus their efforts on improving infrastructure and teaching safe walking and biking practices. Collaborating with departments of transportation, Safe Routes to School programs support work to complete unfinished sidewalks and install new crosswalks, traffic signals, and signs in areas surrounding schools.
Bike train by Jeff Anderson
The education and awareness activities sponsored by Safe Routes to School programs vary by jurisdiction based on local needs.
For example, in Montgomery County, where the Safe Routes to School program was established in 2007, the program hosts competitions that quiz students on safe biking and walking practices. With younger students, the program also uses a role-playing game that features a roll-out crosswalk and cardboard cars on posts to teach students how to cross the street safely.
Another way that Safe Routes to School programs make walking and biking safer is by raising community awareness. The Safe Routes program in Takoma Park raises awareness among adults by partnering with local businesses to host an annual 5K race. The race raises funding for Safe Routes activities in Takoma Park schools and reminds drivers to be conscious of school children while driving near schools.
In Fairfax County, parents and educators lead the Safe Routes to School program. At one elementary school, a father organized a monthly "bike train," of 60 to 80 children, parents, teachers, and sometimes local officials that ride their bikes from surrounding neighborhoods to the school. These rides demonstrate bicycle safety and help students become comfortable biking on streets. Another Fairfax elementary school offers a similar program that encourages parents to bike or walk their children to school every Wednesday. Parents get a free cup of coffee for their effort, and the children get a trinket to show that they participated.
In addition to safety, Safe Routes to School also encourages healthy living by promoting safe biking and walking habits, activities that may lead to reduced obesity and help students perform better in school.
The term "safe routes to school" was coined in Denmark in the 1970s, and since then the idea has spread as a global movement led by safety and active-living advocates. In the United States, the Safe Routes to School program was first launched in California in 1999, and started receiving federal funds in 2005.
Supported through a mix of foundation and government funding, Safe Routes to School programs are often run by a single coordinator who works either for a nonprofit organization, school district, or another government agency. Progams, sometimes without funding, can also be run by volunteers, health departments, or schools.
The TPB does not currently operate any Safe Routes to School programs, but it does offer a service through Commuter Connections that can help families get their children safely to and from school. Called "School Pool," the online service is designed to help parents meet and form pooled, or shared, transportation to and from school for students. These pools are often carpools, but they also include walking and biking groups.
Through activities like the October 29 regional meeting, the Transportation Planning Board and the Greater Washington D.C. Region Safe Routes to School Network are supporting Safe Routes to School programs in the Washington area. These programs help promote healthy lifestyles by making it easier and safer for students to get to and from school via walking or biking.
For more information about Safe Routes to School programs in your area, visit the Greater Washington D.C. Region Safe Routes to School Network.