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A Safer Route To School

A $2 million grant encourages more children to walk and bicycle safely to school.

More students in San Mateo County public schools will soon be walking and biking to school, thanks to a $2 million grant from the San Mateo City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) to the San Mateo County Office of Education (SMCOE) for a Safe Routes to Schools program.

Safe Routes to Schools is a national program funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The goal of the program is to enable community leaders, schools, and parents across the United States to encourage more children to walk and bicycle safely to school. In the process, programs are working to reduce traffic congestion and increase safety around school sites as well as improve health and the environment.

Fewer children walk or bike to school today than they did a generation ago. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to Schools, in 2001 less than 16 percent of students between the ages of 5 and 15 walked or biked to or from school.  But in 1969, 42 percent of students walked or biked. This decline in walking and bicycling to school did not happen overnight, but the circumstances that led to the decline have created a self-perpetuating cycle.

As motor vehicle traffic increases, parents become more convinced that it is unsafe for their children to walk or bicycle to school. They begin driving them to school, thereby adding even more traffic to the road and sustaining the cycle. The goal of Safe Routes to Schools is to break this cycle by helping communities create awareness and programs that encourage walking and cycling to school.

Federal money for this program is distributed to the states; in California the money is distributed through grants from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. San Mateo County is the recipient of a $1,429,000 grant from the MTC and a $571,000 grant from the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County, making a total of $2 million toward implementation of the program.

The San Mateo County Office of Education is responsible for the overall coordination of the program, and is gearing up to have it in place for the 2011-12 school year. SMCOE will make grants to local schools, districts and school/city partnerships to set up Safe Routes to Schools programs.

“We want to get these resources out to schools,” says Peter Burchyns, Special Advisor to the Board and Superintendent at SMCOE. “We’re encouraging parents, PTAs and school site councils to be highly involved in implementing projects that meet local needs.” SMCOE will then act as a catalyst and support for school and district programs, as well as providing a way for schools and districts to share ideas and resources.

A first step will be conducting a countywide needs assessment to determine what the common traffic congestion issues around school sites are, what safety programs are already in place, and what the level of interest is in participating in Safe Routes to Schools. SMCOE will create an application and make grants to local schools, districts and city/school partnerships to set up Safe Routes to Schools programs. “Our goal is to make the application process as streamlined as possible, to encourage the highest level of participation,” says Burchyns.

“The Walking School Bus” is one type of program that a school or district might adopt. Instead of a school bus, parents designate walking routes to school with designated pick-up points. Parents are stationed along the route to provide safety and guidance. Schools that have heavy automobile traffic congestion might consider designating a site a few blocks away for student drop-off in conjunction with a Walking School Bus program.

“The Bicycle Train” is a similar program, providing safe bicycle routes to school. Some communities have created bicycle recycling programs to pass along bicycles that children outgrow, as well as bicycle safety and repair clinics. More ideas for Safe Routes to Schools programs can be found on the National Safe Routes to School website.

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