(Funded in part by a grant from the Lumpkin Family Foundation)
A nationwide initiative known as Safe Routes to School is designed to make walking and biking to school safer and more appealing. But threats to federal funding and concerns over child safety issues could hamper it.
On a clear, sunny afternoon, Emily Svendsen walks a couple of blocks from her home in Urbana to Wiley Elementary School. She lives in an area of town where there are no sidewalks. Her house is located on a cul-de-sac.
Still, she makes sure her kids walk to school. Svendsen is part of a network of parents in the neighborhood who take turns escorting as many as 10 kids to and from school each day.
“It’s still a school bus,” Svendsen said. “We’re just a walking school bus.”
Svendsen picks up her daughter from Wiley Elementary, along with several other kids. They say walking to school is a highlight of their day.
“It’s usually really nice in the mornings. The cool crisp air and the frost crunching under my feet,” Erin Minor said.
“I really like it. It’s just that you can get some good exercise, especially when it’s a nice day,” Isaac Lee said.
“I like it because I get to spend time with my friends, and I don’t like driving in the car as much as I do walking in the mornings,” Fia Svendsen said.
Fia’s mom, Emily, said in addition to the peace of mind that comes from knowing that these kids are safe, she’s made some great friendships with other neighborhood parents
“You don’t really get that same sense when you’re sitting in your car, waiting for your child to come out and run to the car, but also it’s just building exercise into your day, getting fresh air on a regular basis. I just love that neighborhood school feeling, you know?” Svendsen said.
To help maintain that feeling, the federal government doles out $183 million to states as part of the Safe Routes to School program...$21 million of which went to Illinois this year. The money helps support infrastructure projects and bike safety campaigns.
But no matter how much money goes into efforts like a “walking school bus,” there may be some resistance from people concerned about safety.
Brandy Clegg lives about a mile from Wiley Elementary. She usually drives her eight-year-old son to school. But a couple days each week, a parent of one of her son’s friends watches as the two kids walk to school. Clegg doesn’t talk to many of the other parents in the neighborhood, and doesn’t have a large network of parents to rely on like the Svendsens do. Still, she admits a “walking school bus” sounds like a good idea, but she has concerns about letting her child walk to school every day.
“I worry about somebody kidnapping him. I worry about cars running him over and hitting him. We have older kids in the neighborhoods that I don’t trust. They can be mean, and the whole bully issue,” Clegg said.
“I know what it’s like to be that parent and want to protect to the 9th degree,” said Rose Hudson, a coordinator for the C-U Safe Routes to School Project, an effort in Champaign-Urbana to promote physical activity. “You know, it’s just kind of natural, but you have to look at the other side and it’s like are we overprotecting them to the point of health risks?”
Hudson said she hears stories from parents all the time about why they don’t want their kids walking to school. She worries not doing more to boost physical activity among youth will add to the country’s obesity epidemic.
“You know, I think the big thing that people need to think about is that the habits that you instill in your kids when they are young are the habits that are probably going to stick with them into adulthood,” Hudson said.
An analysis of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s nationwide travel survey conducted by the National Center for Safe Routes to School found that in 1969, 48 percent of elementary and middle school students walked or biked to school. But by 2009, that figured dropped to 13 percent.
While safety and convenience are two reasons parents drive their kids to school, distance can be an issue. While in Urbana, students tend to go to school close to home, in Champaign they can usually attend any Unit 4 school regardless of where they live. That can create obstacles for students who want to bike to school, but live too far away to do it.
Gabe Lewis is a transportation planner with the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. He worked with Stratton Elementary School in Champaign to find solutions to the distance issue. He says the kids there want to walk to school, but they just need a safer environment to do it.
“We have some strategies to combat that where one thing is a park and walk program where parents can park a short distance from the school and the parent and child can walk the rest of the way to the school,” Lewis said.
Lewis said to help out with the park and walk program, an enhanced crosswalk will be built east of the school thanks a recent Safe Routes to School grant. Nearby, Eureka Street will also get a block of new sidewalk, and Neil Street will get permanent speed flash back signs.
Meanwhile, the wheels are in motion for a regular bike education course at Champaign’s Booker T. Washington Elementary. Physical education teacher Derrick Cooper envisions renting out bicycles for all of his K- 5 students, and then going over basic safety tips before allowing them to ride on the school’s blacktop.
“I’m really into doing non-traditional things like that. I started a yoga unit that was highly successful that I don’t see other elementaries really picking up on and really doing. I’m just all about the life-long activities,” Cooper said. “After they leave me, after they leave this program at Washington, how are they going to stay active?”
And that’s the big question…how are these kids going to stay active? Safe Routes to School is intended to play a big part in that.
The U.S. House of Representatives considered a bill this year to eliminate federal support for the program. Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana) is a member of the House Transportation Committee. He introduced an amendment to preserve the funding, but it failed in committee.
“I think that in terms of our effort to try to curtail childhood obesity, to provide safe routes to schools, to provide for a bike friendly, walking friendly nation, that these cuts send a very wrong message,” Johnson said.
But Congressman John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) said with the nation’s economic problems, the country could - for now - go without funding Safe Routes to School. Shimkus represents the southern part of the state, but he is running for re-election in a new congressional district that includes parts of Champaign County.
“I do understand how Safe Routes to School is probably pretty important to a university community that prides itself on its abilities, but it’s not that big of a deal in 33 counties in southern Illinois,” Shimkus said. “We’re rural. We’re small. We use buses and cars.”
Geographical challenges aside, Margo Pedroso with the Safe Routes to School National Partnership said rural communities do have a stake in Safe Routes to School funding.
“Forty-one percent of it actually goes to small towns in rural areas,” Pedroso said. “They often struggle with a state highway that runs through the middle of town, separating kids on one side from schools on the other. And even though drivers are supposed to slow down, they often don’t. And small towns don’t have the tax base to do these kinds of infrastructure projects on their own, and they don’t have the resources to bus kids.”
Pedroso said road improvements that are part of this funding could help alleviate such safety concerns.
Meanwhile, Champaign and Urbana have so far been awarded more than $630,000 in federal funding under the Safe Routes to School program over the last few years.
The fate of the program – at least in the immediate future – rests with a special Congressional committee that is working on crafting a Transportation bill.
“Our children are our treasures. I’ve participated in Safe Routes to School,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. “It’s an important safety program, just like the transit safety program is, and it’s one of our top priorities. I can’t even conceive that they would eliminate the money to get children safely to school.”
LaHood has said it is unlikely Congress will pass a final transportation bill until after the November elections. The conference committee begins formal negotiations May 8.
Whatever happens to Safe Routes, a community’s interest in that “neighborhood school feeling” may just be the ultimate test over whether the “walking school bus” maintains legs of its own.