There’s a movement afoot to put kids back on the streets – walking and biking to school, that is.
“Over the last 30 years we’ve seen a significant decline in the number of kids walking and biking to school,” says Kristie Billiar of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “Right now it’s estimated at only 15 percent.”
Sometimes changes in school districts’ structure – such as a move away from neighborhood schools – are behind that decline, but in many cases parents whose kids could walk are driving them to school.
Billiar is the coordinator of Minnesota’s Safe Routes to School program, part of a nationwide push to make sure more kids have a safe way to get to school under their own power. Thanks to a federal bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Oberstar and signed into law last summer, Minnesota has $8 million to distribute over five years in support of local projects.
The first round of applications were due in early July. Billiar says her office received 75 applications from around the state. Many included small improvements in existing infrastructure – such as linking two lengths of sidewalk. The program also asks applicants to include a non-infrastructure component in their applications. These might include bike rodeos and instruction in safely crossing the street.
Billiar says that proposals for walking school buses and bike trains are very popular. Kids would walk or bike to school in supervised groups along designated routes.
“This is one way to reintroduce some of basic physical activity into kids’ worlds and give them some independence at the same time,” says Billiar. “It gives them basic life skills.”
The Safe Routes to School has program has its roots in 1970s Denmark, where parents and lawmakers wanted to reduce the number of children killed and injured on their way to school, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School. In 1998, Congress funded two pilot problems in the United States, which sparked independent initiatives around the country.
For more information, go to Mndot.gov, click on “A-Z Info,” and then choose “S.” Use the form to submit your e-mail address and receive periodic updates on the Safe Routes to School