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Safe Routes to School benefits kids and the community

On a recent Thursday, Vienna Elementary School had only 25 cars in the kiss-and-ride when there are usually 70. This dramatic decrease reduced congestion around the school and improved the morning commute for the entire community. The students attended class but did not arrive in cars.

Photo by Trailnet on Flickr.

Today is International Walk and Bike to School Day, and more than 100 schools throughout the region are hosting events to encourage students to walk and bike to school.

Parents driving their kids to school account for 10-14 percent of morning traffic. This one day event makes a big splash and hopes that the school, students and parents will learn how easy it is to change transportation mode even a few days a week.

Reduced congestion is not the only benefit. Reports like F as in Fat have raised alarm about the growing obesity rate. Students who walk or bike to school are more physically active and have lower obesity than students who are bused or driven. Students who are physically active also enjoy better academic performance.

Vienna Elementary finds success with Safe Routes to School

Safe Routes to School programs encourage students to increase their physical activity through walking and bicycling to school. In October of 2011, Vienna Elementary School started Walking Wednesdays. 3 parent coordinators send home flyers with the students encouraging them to walk or bike to school every Wednesday. The parent coordinators give students who walk or bike a foot token or special reflector for key chains that attach to their backpacks. Parents who walk or bike with their students drink free coffee.

With to this once-a-week commitment, Vienna Elementary School has gotten results. Scott McCall, volunteer Safe Routes to School Coordinator, says the principal is reporting students are more focused in class and more students are walking and bicycling every day of the week, not just Wednesday.

Vienna Elementary has achieved half of their student population walking or bicycling in one day and regularly has 20 bikes in their racks compared to 3-4 last year.

This example contrasts with another local school. In a letter in the Washington Post, a parent at Bailey's Elementary reported she could more easily leave Nationals ballpark on opening day than pick her child up from school.

While her family lives within a mile of the school, the streets are busy and there are no sidewalks. This makes it unsafe and infeasible for this family to walk or bike to school. The consequences are an hour-long wait to pick up her children, congested roads, and a missed opportunity for physical activity.

The difference between the schools is that Vienna Elementary not only has adequate sidewalk infrastructure and is directly adjacent to the W&OD trail, but the Safe Routes to School program makes it fun to for students to walk and bicycle to school.

Infrastructure is a big hurdle for walking and bicycling to school and in communities. Retrofitting existing communities is expensive and built out communities sometimes have little room in the right-of-way for sidewalks and bike lanes. It is not only about how communities spend their money but also about the policies in place that make our transportation system inclusive of pedestrians and cyclists.

Complete Streets policies make streets work for all users

One policy that can prevent further disregard for pedestrians and bicyclists is Complete Streets. Complete Streets policies ensure that streets are designed, maintained and operated for all users of the road—pedestrians, bicyclists, persons using wheelchairs, older adults and children. Infrastructure improvements will still take time, but the policy ensures the local transportation agency works to accommodate all users within a network throughout the community.

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) adopted a regional Complete Streets policy in May. The TPB policy encourages all local jurisdictions to adopt their own policies and commit to multi-modal transportation planning. This is an opportunity for local jurisdictions to commit to easier morning commutes and happy children safely walking and bicycling to school.

Vienna Elementary School shows the huge benefits from the right infrastructure and a little effort. The transportation culture of a school changes. Most likely, now that the trip to school has changed, families are changing their mode of travel for other trips such as to the library or grocery store.

The Greater Washington Region Safe Routes to School Network is posting photos and stories from International Walk and Bike to School Day on their website. It will feature an award ceremony for the Takoma Park Safe Routes to School program, which recently won national recognition.

If you are still not convinced that Safe Routes to School is a solution, look at the kids' faces. They do not know they are reducing congestion or receiving health benefits. They are just really happy to be outside with their friends on their way to school.

Christine Green is the policy manager for the Greater Washington region Safe Routes to School network. She has a master's degree in city and regional planning from Ohio State University and has worked on neighborhood and transportation issues since 2003. She walks and bikes from her home and office on Capitol Hill. Views and opinions are her own.  


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Hear hear. And think of the savings when school buses can be done away with. Now we need to test how dedicated people are when it rains, snows and sleets.

by Jasper on Oct 3, 2012 4:06 pm • linkreport

Relevant fact that has been left out of this article: Two students were struck by a car, walking to school this morning.

It is apparent that the bad traffic on Randolf Road would be alleviated if more drivers took the intercounty connector, and would avoid such disasters. But they don't, presumably because of the high tolls that are adjusted even high when the traffic is bad. So the tolling structure cost more than people think -- greater congestion and more accidents, injuries, and deaths on local streets.

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2012 4:41 pm • linkreport

Some kids were struck on the way to school.

Naturally we should ensure that kids don't walk to school rather than making sure drivers don't hit anyone.

by drumz on Oct 3, 2012 4:45 pm • linkreport

It's even better. The car jumped the curb. Clearly this is those damn teenager's fault for having the gall to walk to a bus stop.

by drumz on Oct 3, 2012 4:45 pm • linkreport

@drumz: it is the tolls. The ICC is a traffic sewer that prohibits pedestrians, and is an alternative to Randolf Road. If that driver that hit the kids was instead on the ICC, the accident would have been avoided. People do not take the ICC because of the expensive tolls.

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2012 5:06 pm • linkreport

Ok I'll let you know how " the tolls made me do it" defense works out.

by Drumz on Oct 3, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport


do you know the guy, or where he was headed? Do you think the ICC would mean NO traffic on randolph?

otherwise I dont see how you can logically say if the ICC were cheaper they wouldnt have been hit.

Do we know if excess speed had anything to do with it?

Also looking on google streets, the sidewalk there has like zero protection from the travel lanes. terrible infrastructure.

by AWalkerInTheCIty on Oct 3, 2012 5:22 pm • linkreport

@drumz: the tolls do not absolve the driver of responsibility. But they do contribute to a dangerous situation.

@AWitC: As you have pointed out elsewhere, taxes and tolls affect use patterns. In fact, in many cases that is their intent. If the ICC had no tolls, accidents similar to this one on Randolf Road would be avoided. Are the tolls are worth it?

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2012 5:31 pm • linkreport

So if we have a dangerous road then why not make the road safer? Alternatively, if someone is driving unsafely why should they be allowed to drive until they can prove the can control their vehicle?

by Drumz on Oct 3, 2012 5:37 pm • linkreport

1. we are not discussing accidents SIMILAR to this one, we are discussing this accident.

2. Volume of traffic is not the only attribute of a road that impacts pedestrian safety. Speed also does, and speed is often inversely related to volume. Its quite possible that MORE traffic would have meant slower traffic, and greater ped safety.

3. Ped infrastructure also matters. Making the ICC free would mean considerably more $$. If that money comes from funds that could be used to build complete streets, with ped safety features, that could result in a major loss of ped safety, even IF the ICC would have helped with this particular accident (which again, we dont know - for all we know the driver was going around the block)

by AWalkerInTheCIty on Oct 3, 2012 5:37 pm • linkreport


What if the posted limit on this road were reduced to 25 mph and that were enforced?

A. Youd probably get more people taking the ICC, the result you desire, but without loss of revenue

B Youd get a safer street for peds even if no drivers switched.

by AWalkerInTheCIty on Oct 3, 2012 5:39 pm • linkreport

@drumz & AwitC: it is all a matter of best use of resources. It would be nice to improve the streetscape, straighten the road, and have police patrols to improve pedestrian safety. But such efforts will take planning, years, and lots of tax dollars. OTOH, the ICC is just sitting there, basically empty. It would be so much easier to change the toll structure -- which, because they increase when the traffic is bad, actually worsens congestion on alternate routes -- than to make such improvements to Randolf Rd.

I am surprised nobody has mentioned the $2.56 billion bonds. I guess such costs are politically easier to recover via tolls than the normal way of financing road construction, by increasing the gasoline tax. I hope the lives lost are worth the easy-way politics.

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2012 5:50 pm • linkreport

@AWitC: reducing the speed limit to 25 mph is even more politically impossible.

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2012 5:51 pm • linkreport

See I think making the streets safer by calming, facilities for all modes Et al. is the best use of resources. And since I think the ICC was/is a waste of resources so I'm not especially sensitive to plight of people who feel as if they have to take the surface roads that were there before because paying a toll is beyond the pale in our war on drivers.

by Drumz on Oct 3, 2012 6:16 pm • linkreport

@drumz: but it is already there; might as well use it.

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2012 6:19 pm • linkreport

I agree, but it also needs to be paid for. And it still doesn't factor into any excuse for someone losing control over their car, jumping the curb and hitting people.

by Drumz on Oct 3, 2012 6:25 pm • linkreport

@drumz: no such excuse was invoked. Regardless, it is in everyone's best interest if the traffic situation were made safer.

by goldfish on Oct 3, 2012 6:49 pm • linkreport

The other thing that really helps elementary schools like Vienna ES is the definition of the their boundary area. While its boundary does cross Maple Avenue (Rte 123), all the intersections are signalized with pedestrian push buttons.

Contrast that to Freedom Hill ES in Tysons where more than half the student population is inside the Beltway along RTE 7. Students walking from this neighborhood would need to to cross 4 on/off ramps to get anywhere close to the school.

This is problematic in much of Fairfax County where the school boundary area are drive solely by student populations, not walking, bicycling or even reasonable bus routes to school.

by Some Ideas on Oct 3, 2012 9:44 pm • linkreport

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