Urbana, Ill., School Makes it Possible for Children to Walk and Bike to School

    • November 22, 2011

In Urbana, Ill., safer streets and a free bicycle program mean more students are getting to school powered by their own two legs.

Walking or biking to and from school is a great way to ensure daily physical activity for children and to help prevent obesity. Unfortunately, only 16 percent of school-age children in the United States walked or biked to school in 2001, compared to 42 percent in 1969. In Urbana, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary School is committed to bucking that trend.

King Elementary serves a predominantly African American, lower-income neighborhood, along with international families from dozens of different countries at the nearby University of Illinois campus. More than 80 percent of King Elementary‘s 300 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Many walk to school each day from a housing project several blocks away.

“Our school is in a busy neighborhood,” says Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, the school’s principal since 2005. “The pathways our children take to school are along major traffic routes to the university and two hospitals, and we’ve had problems with drivers who speed and ignore the stop signs on school buses.”

Cynthia Hoyle is a transportation planning consultant who also serves as the chair of the Champaign-Urbana Safe Routes to School Project, part of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Working with Hoyle, Ivory-Tatum organized a school team to address safety issues, with an eye toward increasing the number of students who walk or bike to school each day. The team includes teachers and parents, a community police officer, an engineer from the public works department, and representatives of the nonprofit Active Transportation Alliance, a resource supporting Safe Routes to School programs in Illinois.

A centerpiece of King Elementary’s efforts has been International Walk to School Day. The event takes place every October, bringing local media attention and community focus to the importance of walking – even for those who usually ride the bus. That day the school sets up a remote drop-off location for cars and school buses, so that all students can walk at least part of the way to school, accompanied by parents or other adult volunteers. This escorted walk is known as a “walking school bus.” The school is planning to partner with the University of Illinois Kinesiology and Community Health Department to recruit and train university students to accompany the elementary school students on a regular basis, not just for Walk to School Day.

The Bike Project, another community partner, co-sponsored a free bike giveaway during the school assembly on Walk to School Day with the Champaign-Urbana Safe Routes to School Project. Through a raffle drawing, 10 King Elementary students were awarded refurbished bicycles along with helmets, locks and lights; the winners and their parents attended a “bike rodeo”—a bicycle skills clinic—where they then received their bicycles.

The school has installed new bicycle racks and relocated them from the side of the building to the back entrance. That makes it more convenient for riders and also more visible to an adjacent classroom, reducing the risk of theft.

But school isn’t the only place for bike rodeos, traffic safety games, and giveaways of bike helmets and maps. These activities also take place at the Urbana farmers’ market, at the communitywide “Playing It Safe Day,” and by request from other local schools and organizations.

Inspired by students’ growing interest in biking, several teachers at King Elementary have initiated an ongoing “bike train,” an escorted group bicycle ride to school.

“The number of students biking to school went from zero to seven in less than a year,” says Ivory-Tatum, “All of them received their bicycles through the bike raffle and rodeo.”

The school’s programs to enhance pedestrian safety and educate school and community audiences about Safe Routes to School are funded by a combination of community-wide grants from the city and state and with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). For example, school zone markings and signage have been updated throughout the city through a Safe Routes to School grant from the Illinois State Department of Transportation. Around King Elementary, crosswalks have been repainted and new, retro-reflective speed limit signs have been installed for improved visibility in low-light conditions. Additionally, to improve safety during arrival and dismissal times, the school developed new traffic patterns in the school parking lot and worked with the police department to temporarily block the entire street in front of the school each day, so children can safely board the bus or begin their trip home on foot or bicycle.

“We now have more students walking and biking than ever before, and several older students who come on skateboard or roller skates,” says Ivory-Tatum. “We want them to be safe and we also want to make it easy for them. We have all these ways to encourage them, because we want them to know their behavior is valued.”