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Q&A: Safe Routes to School encourages walking and biking

The bike rack was filled at Calumet Elementary in Calumet on Bike to School Day 2014.

Pine Knob students and parents walked to school in a walking parade along Sashabaw Road in Clarkston on Walk to School Day 2014.

A group of students and teachers walked to Potter Elementary School in Flint from a local church on Walk to School Day 2014.

These days, biking and walking to school may seem to be a tradition of past generations.
In 2001, less than 15 percent of students between the ages of five and 15 walked to or from school, and 1 percent of students biked. In 1969, 48 percent of students walked or biked to school.
Safe Routes to School is aiming to bring back that habit to today’s schools.
This federal program -- and international movement -- is making walking or biking to school safe, convenient and fun for children.
Managed by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), with training, logistical, administrative and technical support from the Michigan Fitness Foundation, Safe Routes to School aims to develop a school-based plan to increase the safety and number of students walking and biking to school.
InspirED chatted with Katie Johnson, the Safe Routes to School program coordinator at the Michigan Fitness Foundation.
Tell us a little more about Bike to School Day.
Johnson: Bike to School Day is the spin-off of International Walk to School Day that has taken place every October since 1997. National Bike to School first started in 2012, so 2015 will be the fourth annual national event.
This year’s Bike to School Day will take place on May 6. Any school in Michigan can sign up to participate and host an event that makes the most sense for them. Some schools will host a “Bike Parade” where students and adults meet at a designated location and bike to school together. Other schools might simply encourage students to bike to school on that day or hold a biking skills assembly to teach safe biking behaviors.
Schools have free reign to plan a personalized event. And if May 6 doesn’t work, they can choose any day in May, which is National Bike Month. Michigan Safe Routes to School coordinates the events for Michigan schools, including registration, providing event help and resources.
The goal is to enable and encourage more students in grades kindergarten through eight, including those with disabilities, to walk and bike to school and to help them do so safely.
How are these efforts promoting the idea of “green schools” and being environmentally conscious?
Johnson: Getting more schools, students and parents walking or biking to school certainly has an impact on the environment that surrounds them. As more students walk or bike to school, it lessens traffic congestion around the school grounds and helps improve air quality. This means parents are spending less on gas as they are driving less, and student’s health is improving from the cleaner air and from the regular physical activity.
In addition to the regular physical activity kids need for good health, these initiatives also reduce traffic, fuel consumption and air pollution in the vicinity of local schools.
What are some of the greatest challenges when it comes to promoting walking and biking to school to children? How do you tackle those?
Johnson: Today parents just feel like they do not have the time to walk or bike with their kids to school, or that they live too far to have their children walk or bike. To that end, we encourage the parents or school to set up a group schedule where volunteers can take turns walking or biking with groups of students, even once per week. If students live too far away to walk or bike, we encourage schools to set up a remote drop-off site where parents can drop their kids off and walk a 1/4 mile or 1/2 mile to school.
The other challenges we face are the negative feelings parents have about letting their children walk or bike to school without adult supervision. Whether it's worries about crime, maturity or driver behavior, many parents just don’t want their children walking to school. For this, we encourage schools or parents to set-up volunteer times that a parent can walk or bike with a group of students, such as a walking school bus or bike train. A walking school bus is basically a volunteer walking along a designated route picking up students from their homes along the way, and a bike train is just the same but with bikes. These students now not only have adult supervision, but the parents can also save time by having their kids out the door earlier.
What do you envision for the future of Safe Routes to School and Bike to School Day?
Johnson: Our goal at Safe Routes to School is to basically run ourselves out of business. We’d love for all students in Michigan to have the opportunity to walk and bike to school on a daily basis. Right now, we just want to help more students learn about safe walking and biking practices and to partake in them regularly. My personal goals for Bike and Walk to School Day are to double participation (which we are on our way to) and to get more schools thinking about walking and biking on a regular basis.
Last year, 152 registered schools, nearly 40,000 students in Michigan, participated in Bike to School Day. The goal for 2015 is to have close to 200 schools.
Are there any successes or highlights you would like to share?
Johnson: We’ve got so many success stories -- it’s hard to pick just one. We’ve been working with a lot of great schools that have really embraced the program and increased walking or biking to school. One that comes to mind is Horizon Elementary School in Holt. Horizon Elementary School was awarded an infrastructure grant in 2011 and followed up physical improvements with a programming initiative shortly thereafter. Because of this they were able to increase the daily number of students walking and biking to school (through Walking School Buses and Remote Drop-offs) from 25 to 125 students. Horizon Elementary School is also able to save money by eliminating one bus route. The success of that project encouraged the administration to take the program district wide.
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