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Safe Routes to School has School Bus Implications

Though not exactly the preferred type of federal funding, program available to enhance school bus stops, school zones while promoting child fitness

It’s well-known that the number of overweight children and teens has continued to rise over the last two decades. The Centers for Disease Control report that 15 percent of teens today are obese compared with only 5 percent in the 1960s, due in part to a lack of physical exercise.

While some 25 million public school students are on the yellow bus to and from school each day, about the same number of children find some other means of getting to class. That used to entail a good share of walking or biking, but kids these days aren’t even doing much of that anymore. Many parents often just give their kids a lift in the family car on the way to work, explains Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Association.

“Something so simple that we were doing for decades, like walking to school, suddenly seems new,” he says.

To counter this trend, the FHA has a $612 million annual grant available to states to provide funds to help schools improve their school zone and encourage kids to walk and bike to school. The Safe Routes to School Program was passed by Congress in late 2005 as part of SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users) to reinvigorate efforts at the community level.

Hecox admits that although the FHA doesn’t usually encourage cars and pedestrians in traffic together, this program is an example of good collaboration.

“This is one of the latest examples, like light rails, in which the FHA contributes a lot of money to causes that ultimately extend the lifespan of highways.”

He adds that in addition to promoting physical activity, the program will help reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and make communities more livable. Some in the school bus industry, however, have expressed concern that federal funding is enhancing walking and biking to school while ignoring necessary improvements to much safer school bus transportation.

“I’m a cyclist myself, and the Safe Routes to School sounds like a great program,” says Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. “But if the federal government is willing to spend $612 million to make improvements for the 25 million kids who don’t ride the school bus, they should spend at least that much for programs and services for the 25 million students who do take the yellow bus each day.”

Martin says he would like to see federal dollars go to address issues such as testing lap/shoulder seat belts in side or rollover crashes in order to better answer parental concerns or training for kids on how to ride the bus safely. There are also arguments for enhanced driver training and addressing the so-called “Danger Zone” around the school bus, where on average three times as many children, 18, are killed each year than onboard the bus, six. Many students killed in the danger zone are pedestrians or bicyclists on their way to or from school.

“There is no federal money, not a cent, that comes down to assist public transportation on yellow buses,” says Martin. “All the safety training that school districts do to teach kids how to board the bus and behave respectfully while riding all comes out of taxpayer dollars, it’s all on the local level. But now they are funding training for kids to walk and bike to school. I just see a real disparity.”

Martin admits that part of that discrepancy is predicated on the fact that school bus transportation has been doing it so long and so well that the federal government feels they don’t need to worry about it.

“But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges in the school bus industry,” he adds. Launi Schmutz, transportation director in Southwestern Utah’s Washington County has successfully applied for these federal Safe Route funds in partnership with several local cities. She believes the industry should make the most of the Safe Routes to School program.

“Although it may not be (precisely) what we want, we should work with what we have,” says Schmutz, who also sits on the NAPT board as a director-at-large. “This gives us some solutions to offer those parents whose kids are not in the transportation boundaries that allow for bus service.”

Schmutz also encourages school transportation to increase its communication and collaboration with community and other government agencies. In Washington County, she attends monthly meetings with the local police department, district administrators and city engineers to talk about concerns regarding school bus loading and unloading zones, crosswalk and bus stop concerns and other safety topics that can improve student safety.

“It’s been one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done in transportation,” she says.Martin agrees the program has its benefits, but still wants to see more of a commitment from the feds to the yellow bus.

“I’m not knocking the Safe Routes to School program,” he says. “I just want to get people talking about (other) things we could use some help with.”

Working the Safe Routes Program
The National Center for Safe Routes to School, housed at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Research Center, manages the program and serves as a repository of data on its effectiveness. The center has established a safe route coordinator in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as part of each local Department of Transportation. The first Safe Routes to School national conference was held last November.

There are a number of ways schools can use the funds highlighting the five “Es”: education, enforcement, encouragement, engineering and evaluation. Money can go to holding school assemblies, teaching safe driving in school zones or organizing a bicycle rodeo. Other ideas include adding signage or pedestrian signals, maintaining sidewalks and roads and improving bus stops.

One of the ground-breaking concepts being funded is the Walking School Bus, basically carpooling by foot. Parents in effect act as a walking bus driver to safely chaperone a group of neighborhood children to and from school. Children are taught to leave their home at a specific time each morning to meet the group at a designated stop.

Tonna Marcyes, the Safe Routes to School Coordinator in Texas, participated with her 6-year-old grandson during International Walk to School Day in October.

“There were 500 little kids out there walking with parents who were on bicycles or pushing strollers. It was great to get the kids back outdoors,” she says. “They develop great social skills and it teaches them independence. People get to know their neighbors. There are so many great things that as a society we’ve gotten away from like walking.”

Some districts like Boulder Valley in Boulder, Colo., have gone as far as issuing bright yellow safety bus hats to Walking School Bus participants and naming each group such as “Darley Dart” and “Vassar Vrrrrrroom” to build stronger identities.

Marcyes has had no problem getting the word out on the program in Texas. “Anytime there is free federal money, they come.” This time last year, Marcyes was traveling the state putting on a “dog and pony show” as she calls it to educate government agencies on the program.

“Now we are to the point where the phone is ringing off the wall,” she adds.Boulder Valley School District has partnered with the city and other municipalities to apply the grants to infrastructure such as constructing new sidewalks and erecting signage while the school district handles the educational component.

One of their most exciting programs is the Freiker (Frequent Biker) incentive program to encourage children to bike to school. Children are issued radio frequency identification tags that serve as a bar code on their bike helmet. A solar-powered meter at each participating school records each child as they walk underneath. The information is collected and the children win prizes at the end of the school year based on how often they biked to school.

“It has created a real buzz at the schools, although it remains to be seen how effective it is over the long haul,” says Landon Hilliard, student transportation coordinator at Boulder Valley School District.

In addition to weekly prizes, competitions among classes and random raffles, the biggest carrot being dangled is the year-end prize, an iPod.

“We know habits being formed when children are young are crucial, and we want our message to carry over through middle school and that golden time when the driver’s license becomes available,” explains Hilliard. “We want to get them through that so they return to walking and biking in high school and beyond.”

Other programs the school district has implemented are “Walk and Wheel Wednesdays,” during which incentives and fanfare is given to promote walking or using skateboards and rollerblades on that day of the week. When children arrive at school, they are given a healthy snack such as an energy bar and are entered into a raffle for prizes such as a bike lock, reflector or bell. And those who ride a school bus are not left out. Ride and Stride allows students who come by school bus, car or public transit to participate in “Walk and Wheel Wednesdays” by being dropped off at a station a half-mile from school and walking or wheeling in from there.

“It would be great if we could get all kids on the bus, but it’s not reality,” says Bob Young, director of transportation at Boulder Valley. “We should do something for the kids closer in who aren’t eligible for the bus.”

Blodgett is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Reprinted from the May 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

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