Ten-year-old Ammon Davis was rounding the last curve in the bicycle obstacle course set up outside Aurora’s AXL Academy recently when disaster struck. He’d taken his eyes off the path just long enough to hit a curb and take a painful tumble off his bike.
And thus are some of life’s most valuable lessons learned: while getting knocked off one’s bike, either literally or figuratively.
“I learned not to crash,” said Ammon, who manfully got up and remounted after a few moments resting on the ground. “I’ll go more carefully now.”
Riding safely was the theme of the day at AXL’s recent bike rodeo for fourth graders, which culminated two months of in-depth study on the greater issue of how to get more youngsters out of their parents’ cars and onto their bikes or onto their feet and thus burn more calories and become more fit.
AXL got a $1,000 grant to fund the project from the National Center for Safe Routes to School, a four-year-old organization funded through the Federal Highway Administration to help communities encourage pedestrian and bicycle safety. Elsewhere across the state, schools and municipalities have received federal grants, administered through the Colorado Department of Transportation, ranging from just a few thousand dollars to nearly a quarter of a million dollars to develop pedestrian and bike safety programs and to install infrastructure improvements to make walking or biking to school a safer, more attractive prospect.
It’s all part of the national Safe Routes to School initiative, a crusade in which Colorado is among the leading states.
A generation ago, most kids walked or rode their bikes to school. Today, however, fewer than 15 percent of American schoolchildren regularly do so. While that alone doesn’t account for the current obesity epidemic among children, it may well be one of a number of contributing factors, say experts.
What’s more, as much as 30 percent of morning traffic is created by parents driving their children to school, studies show.
But don’t blame laziness or indulgent parents for the uptick in chauffeur-driven students. Rather, community design and changing travel patterns largely account for the decrease in school-bound pedestrians. Many more people live in suburbs now, and suburban schools tend to be less than pedestrian-friendly.
“If a school is built four miles away from a major housing development, kids will either have to ride a bus or be driven,” said Christine Fischer, organizer for the Colorado Safe Routes to Schools network. “And that’s the trend for a lot of reasons. The idea was, if you set a school off on its own, it’s easy to get to for cars, but not necessarily for kids.”
In fact, low-income children – particularly those in older, urban neighborhoods – are significantly more likely to walk to school than their more affluent peers, but these children have different obstacles. Poor air quality and speeding traffic may put them at risk.
“How are the streets designed?” Fischer asked. “Are there sidewalks? Are the roads so wide it gives the appearance to drivers that they can drive faster than they should because it looks like a freeway? All these things factor into walk-ability or bike-ability.”
That’s what AXL students were looking for when they fanned out over the neighborhood to assess the impediments to pedestrians headed to their school. And they put their findings in letters to policy-makers.
“Dear Gov. Ritter,” wrote 10-year-old Kira Hopkins. “Around my school there are barely any safety precautions. There are no crosswalks, school crossing signs, yield or stop signs. I think you should help solve this problem.”
Mara Wood noticed that nearby Jewell Elementary School is in a traffic safety zone, where speed limits are lower, but the safety zone ends before it reaches AXL, a newer charter school located in a more industrial area. “If we are not part of the zone, cars will think they can speed up,” Mara complained. “Another thing I’m very concerned about is that we do not have a crosswalk at Jewell and Blackhawk. This really pushes my buttons because some kids live in those apartments and they have to cross a busy street.”
“I noticed that there were trees on the sidewalk and made it hard to walk,” pointed out Michelle Do. “I think someone should cut the long branches…My group noticed that there were some electrical boxes next to the sidewalk without fences around them.”
Leah Miller, director of community development at AXL, acknowledges that few students at the school – which currently houses 280 children grades K-6, but will expand next year to pre-K-7 – walk or bike to class. “Maybe a dozen do,” she said. “But we’re hoping that next year we can start a ‘walking school bus,’ so maybe parents will feel more comfortable letting them walk. There are some problems that we discovered on the walking route from the school to Tiera Park, but there are a lot of good things about the route too.”
“Walking school buses” involve parents who serve as designated walkers with a group of children. They walk along a designated route, similar to a school bus route, picking kids up along the way. Parents at Aurora’s Fletcher Elementary School launched just such a program last fall.
Elsewhere around Colorado, a number of school districts have launched Safe Routes to School programs with varying degrees of success.
In Boulder Valley, the Freiker (short for “frequent biker”) Program (recently renamed Boltage) uses some innovative, solar-powered technology to let students track the number of days they walk or bike to school, and wirelessly upload the data to a website. The “freikers” earn prizes based on how often they walk or ride. Proponents say the program has been so successful that at one school, Crest View Elementary, the number of bicyclists has doubled, and on any given day about 25 percent of students ride their bikes to school.
In Longmont, students get bike safety tips from cycling instructors, and stage “Walk or Wheel Thursdays,” and students who participate can participate in raffles. Eagle Crest Elementary experienced a nearly 40 percent reduction in motor vehicle traffic thanks to its “Step Out and Soar” program.
In Calhan, the school principal has started a walking club for students, and offers prizes – gift cards for new sneakers – for students who fill up a punch card with regular walks.
Superior Elementary School, in Superior, recently got a grant to create a series of educational videos to address safe walking and bicycling. The series will be designed and produced by students and parent volunteers, then will be integrated into the school’s curriculum.
Numbers of districts sponsor a “Walk to School” day, usually in the fall, but Fischer fears that single-day events don’t spark much permanent change in behavior. What’s really needed is sustained advocacy at the local policy-making level, so officials take pedestrian and bicyclist concerns into account when siting schools or developing infrastructure.
That’s where Fischer comes in. Colorado recently received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create a state network for Safe Routes to Schools. That network, headed by Fischer and administered through The Children’s Hospital, is working on a state action plan to address some of the underlying infrastructure and school curriculum issues that impact pedestrians.
For example, state education officials have not yet created a statewide bicycle and pedestrian safety curriculum to be taught in Colorado classrooms. Thus, schools who want to teach such programs must rely on local programs run by volunteer groups. Meanwhile, physical education teachers – the group most likely to teach such a curriculum – find their class time squeezed out and the programs scaled back.
The city of Fort Collins recently won a Safe Routes to School grant to identify and test successful curricula and to create a prototype that could be used throughout Colorado.
“Colorado is already a leader,” Fischer said. “This gives us a way to get a network created, up and running, sustainable, and really taking it to the next level. There are pockets of schools who have information on Safe Routes to Schools, because they’re applied for grants. Or there are pockets of parents who know about this. But the majority of people don’t know anything about it. Neither do town boards who make the decisions about what housing developments should look like. We have an opportunity to really advocate and explain and give the message to them, so they’ll make policy changes at the local level.”
Fischer notes that the Safe Routes to School Network is interested in recruiting members. “School board members, parents, representatives from health organizations, law enforcement – anyone is welcome,” she said. “We really want to grow. We want to cover all areas of the state.” The network meets monthly. E-mail her at Colorado@saferoutespartnership.org for information.