Oops, yesterday was International Walk and Bike to School Day
which I usually take as an occasion to write about the issue.
-- International Walk and Bike to School Day
I was reminded because yesterday afternoon I was sent a copy of a Bicycling Magazine article ("Why Johnny Can't Ride") from 2012 about resistance in school systems to supporting biking to school.
Although recently, DC has announced that all second graders will be taught safe biking skills ("All D.C. public school students will learn to ride a bike in second grade," Washington Post). And the city's transportation department has supported walking and biking to school programs for a number of years, although I don't think that every school participates.
(The "Why Johnny Can't" narrative is a riff on an earlier effort by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to encourage school systems to retain neighborhood schools, which increasingly have been abandoned in favor of much larger school campuses, usually located on the outskirts of cities. See Why Johnny Can't Walk to School: Historic Neighborhood Schools In The Age Of Sprawl.)
The Bicycling story is pretty disheartening, then again, it kind of reminds me of letters to the editor in yesterday's New York Times in response to a recent article on improving school lunches/difficulties of improving school lunches. The article asserted it was a lost cause, while the letter writers disagreed. I laughed to myself, because improving the nutritional elements of school lunches was an issue that I worked on a little bit almost 30 years ago.
A program/structured approach is necessary. The story reiterated for me the necessity of a structured approach to biking as transportation, one aimed at moving social change forward, but at the same time, when leaders are resistant, the quest is much more difficult.
Ironically, adjacent to the city where the school is located, Saratoga Springs, New York, two other communities served by the same school district promote biking to school, have built trails and paths between neighborhoods and schools, etc.
Still, according to the article, few students are riding to school in those other communities despite the presence of infrastructure, which is more evidence of the need to promote biking to school systematically, that infrastructure on its own isn't enough.
The national Safe Routes to School program encourages structural changes, and some federal transportation monies are directed to these programs at the state level. In turn, state departments of transportation support the program at the local level.
A campaign approach. Many efforts are done at the school level. But while these can be quite successful, they aren't necessarily institutionalized and can languish as the children of involved parents graduate from the school, principals change, etc.
One of the best examples of taking a community campaign approach, fostered by a local group, is the Starkville in Motion sustainable mobility advocacy group in Mississippi. A big focus of the group has been on Safe Routes to School.
Locally, even though the City of Takoma Park, Maryland doesn't have direct input into the countywide school system, it pays for a Safe Routes to School coordinator to work with the public (and private) schools in the community to promote walking and biking to school.
The best way to effect change: changing rules for school systems at the state level. By and large, the school transportation infrastructure is focused on busing students to school when they live more than one mile from school, and having students walk or bike to school when they live within one mile from school.
Few school districts have systematic programs for sustainable modes--walking and biking--instead they focus on busing kids to school, spending millions of dollars on buses, personnel, and fuel each year.
What I suggested when I worked in Baltimore County was that the State of Maryland's educational regulations needed to be changed with regard to transportation of students in K-12, that the school systems should be required to do "balanced transportation planning," providing programming and other assistance to walking and biking as well as to busing.
That's what's done in the State of Washington. They don't require school systems to promote walking and biking exactly.
But (1) public and private elementary schools must create safe routes to school maps;
(2) it is recommended that all school districts have committees focused on school transportation safety;
(3) school districts are allowed to use state monies appropriated for "transportation" to be used on infrastructure improvements for walking and biking--before the monies had only been authorized to fund school bus transportation;
(4) the state transportation department funds the Safe Routes to School program and provides a wide variety of resources to school systems on walking and biking
(5) including the comprehensive guide, Walk and Bike Routes: A Guide for Planning and Improving Walk and Bike to School Options for Students, which is one of the best guides available nationally;
(6) Separately the state department of education funds bike and pedestrian education in middle schools.
At a number of the schools half or more of the students get to school via sustainable modes.
-- Alternative Transportation TO (Transportation Options) School program, BVSD
The BVSD is one of the best examples of why a structured approach is best, and suggests that focusing on changing state requirements to change the way school districts address transportation to and from school to include walking and biking is the best way to accelerate change at the school and school district scale.