How do you encourage kids to walk and bike to school in a county lacking sidewalks or designated riding lanes? You get creative, that’s how.
Maybe you drop kids off at a safe place near the school and walk there as a group; or, buy bikes for students who wouldn’t otherwise have them and teach them how to ride. Perhaps you encourage kids to walk briskly for 10 or 15 minutes in a school gym; or, take them to a nearby greenway for an outing.
“Safety, whatever was done, would never be compromised,” said Elaine Russell of Andrews, regional consultant for the Community Transformation Grant Project. Jackson and the state’s seven other westernmost counties are grouped together for the project; Jackson County’s Department of Public Health is serving as lead agency for this regional group.
The county Health Department and the state Department of Transportation are working to shape the project, called Active Routes to School. The idea is to encourage kids to move more – 60 minutes a day of exercise is the ideal.
North Carolina has $17 million in unspent federal dollars from an original allocation of $30 million, said Don Kostelec of Kostelec Planning in Asheville, an expert in transportation planning in Western North Carolina.
Federal guidelines dictate 30 percent of the money be spent on things other than infrastructure. Jackson, as the lead county for the region, is recruiting a project coordinator.
“Safe and active routes to school is more than a sidewalk,” said Anna Lippard, health education specialist for Jackson County’s health department. “From a public health perspective, it is about community connectivity and having someone (the coordinator) to advocate so that we can access DOT funds for projects to better our community.”
Additionally, the project serves as “a great opportunity for public health to partner with DOT at the local level,” said Paula Carden, who is the director of Jackson County’s Health Department.
There are “Five E’s” of Safe Routes to Schools:
• Evaluation – monitoring and documenting outcomes, attitudes and trends by collecting data before and after initiatives.
• Engineering – Creating operational and physical improvements to the infrastructure surrounding schools that reduce speeds and potential conflicts with motor vehicle traffic, and establish safer and fully accessible crossings, walkways, trails and bikeways.
• Education –Teaching children about the broad range of transportation choices, instructing them in important lifelong bicycling and walking safety.
• Encouragement – Using events and activities to promote walking and bicycling and to generate enthusiasm for the program with students, parents, staff and surrounding community.
• Enforcement – Partnering with local law enforcement to ensure that traffic laws are obeyed in the vicinity of schools (this includes enforcement of speeds, yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks and proper walking and bicycling behaviors) and initiating community enforcement such as crossing guard programs and student safety patrols.
“Safety is the No. 1 priority for the Safe Routes to School program,” said Ed Johnson, the state’s program coordinator. “The program is about getting kids to walk and bike safely to and from schools in their community. If it’s not safe, then we will work to make it safe.
“The program is also about encouraging kids to get the 60 minutes of exercise they need everyday. If they can walk 15 minutes twice a day, that will help them in classwork, socials skills and build a sense of independence and confidence as they grow up.”
The point of the program, Johnson said, is this: “To increase the options kids have to be physically active, which is shown to improve academic performance and build a healthy lifestyle.”