Category Archives: Safe routes to school
With research indicating that fewer children are walking or biking to school than in decades past—and with the childhood obesity epidemic in full swing—health experts have been brainstorming solutions that would address both issues. In recent years, a simple but effective concept has been gaining traction at the grass-roots level: Why not organize a “Walking School Bus”—a group of kids who walk to school with one or more adults, so that kids can get exercise on their way to and from school?
A Walking School Bus is “just like a regular school bus, but without the walls and seats, and instead of wheels, we use our feet,” explained LeeAnne Fergason, education director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Ore., which has a thriving Walking School Bus program. Other communities around the country that have well-established Walking School Bus programs include Chapel Hill, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; Burlington, Vt.; Columbia, Mo.; and Duluth, Ga. In the Fall of 2014, many more schools—including Grand View Elementary in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; Greenacres Elementary in Scarsdale, N.Y.; Madison Elementary in Redondo Beach, Calif.; and several elementary schools in Spokane, Wash.—will be joining the trend.
Created by the National Center for Safe Routes to School, these programs help kids sneak some extra physical activity into their day while also addressing parents’ concerns about getting their kids to school safely. It can be as simple as a few neighborhood families taking turns walking their kids to school. Or it can be more elaborate, with prearranged routes, timetables and stops along the way to pick up more “passengers”; with this model, there’s usually an adult “driver” at the front and an adult “conductor” bringing up the rear. A variation on this theme, the bicycle train, in which two or more adults accompany and supervise kids as they ride their bikes to school, has also become popular.
Viewed as a way to fight childhood obesity, improve school attendance rates and ensure that kids get to school safely, the Walking School Bus concept is garnering positive reviews from public health experts. In July 2013, Michelle Obama voiced her support of these programs in her remarks to mayors gathered at the White House.
“I've heard more and more of this kind of walking school bus happening all over the country—so that kids can get exercise on the way to school, kind of like we did when we were growing up," she said. “It’s about people all across this country coming together to take action to support the health of our kids.”
Besides providing an opportunity for movement, the Walking School Bus also allows kids to socialize with their peers, gain a bit of independence and learn important road safety skills. All of these benefits are also important for children’s health and wellbeing.
Sixteen years ago, Deb Hubsmith was on her daily drive after work and another vehicle violently smashed into the passenger side of her car. Her car was totaled. As the crash took place, Hubsmith vowed to herself that if she survived, she'd give up owning a car for good. Hubsmith, who told her story here, went on to found and direct the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and spearhead a national movement to create healthier, more walkable communities where children can walk or bike to school every day.
NewPublicHealth caught up with Deb Hubsmith to talk about why safe routes to school are critical for the nation’s health.
NewPublicHealth: Why are safe routes to school important for the nation's health and quality of life?
Deb Hubsmith: The trip to school is a trip every child in America makes. Safe Routes to School is the only federal funding that is dedicated to infrastructure and programs that help kids be able to walk and bike to school in their daily life. By building sidewalks and pathways and safer street crossings, and focusing on safe routes to school, we can change the built environment and also change the culture. This creates opportunities for safe and healthy physical activity for children across the country.
NPH: How did you come to found the Safe Routes to School National Partnership?
Deb Hubsmith: I’ve always cared a lot about the environment and public health. After I got into a car accident 16 years ago, I decided to try living life without a car. It was very difficult to do this. So, I became an advocate for transportation choices. I started off by working with parents and teachers and advocates at the local school in my community. We worked on ways to get kids to school safely by walking and biking, and by carpooling and busing. I became interested in how this could be done on a larger scale, so I started working within the county. When I heard that Congressman Oberstar was looking for ways to improve safe routes to school and walking and biking in America, I had the great fortune of meeting him and having the opportunity to run a national pilot program for safe routes to school in Marin County, Calif. In that program, in one year we increased the number of kids walking and biking to school by 57 percent. This made national news.
The childhood obesity epidemic was rising at that time, and Mr. Oberstar wanted to do something to help all of America, so I worked with his staff on crafting federal legislation, and the Safe Routes to School program was included in the transportation bill in 2005. I launched the Safe Routes to School National Partnership at the same time because I knew we needed a grassroots organization to truly build a movement. This movement needed to be diverse, with partners from health, education, equity, environmental and transportation organizations. Now, our national partnership includes about 600 organizations.
NPH: You've said the concept of safe routes to school has reached the point where it's become a true movement. How did this shift come about?
The New Partners for Smart Growth Conference last week had several sessions on creating easier access to transportation alternatives that reduce dependence on motor vehicles. A recent study in the journal Health Place by Jamie F. Chriqui, PhD, senior research scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago Institute for Health Research and Policy, moves the debate forward with a look at whether laws are a help or hindrance in increasing biking and walking to school by elementary school students.
NewPublicHealth spoke with Jamie Chriqui about the study.
NewPublicHealth: What was the scope of your study?
Jamie Chriqui: This was a nationwide study by the Bridging the Gap program at the University of Illinois in Chicago. We examined the relationship between state laws related to safe routes to school, such as minimum busing distances or requirements for crossing guards, speed zones, sidewalks around schools, and practices and policies at elementary schools related to active travel to school. We conducted the study between 2007 and 2009 and looked at thousands of schools across the country.
[Note: Bridging the Gap is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded nationally recognized research program dedicated to improving the understanding of how policies and environmental factors influence diet, physical activity and obesity among youth, as well as youth tobacco use.]
NPH: And what were the results of the study?