Getting to School on Their Own Two Feet

"When I was your age, everybody walked to school." 
 
It's a common statement, even a joke - add "uphill, both ways!" at the end if you wish. But when you look at real-life numbers, the change in how today's kids get to school truly is dramatic.
 
"A generation ago, you had 43 percent of kids walking or biking to school and 12 percent being driven to school," Meg Thomas says. "Now those numbers have mostly flip-flopped."
 
Thomas is the director of Michigan's Safe Routes To School Program, which is aiming to turn the tide back on those numbers. That can mean changes in neighborhood infrastructure, like installing or improving sidewalks, street crossings, bike lanes and signage. It can also mean smaller projects, like educational programs for parents and kids, additional crossing guards or a "walking school bus" of kids hoofing it together. But it takes funding to get either type of project organized in the first place, and that's where SRTS comes in. Funding from the federal SRTS program is administered through state departments of transportation to individual schools. 
 
"They'll get infrastructure dollars, and then they'll get non-infrastructure," Thomas says. "Frequently, they'll not use those non-infrastructure dollars until they finish with the infrastructure."
 
A typical infrastructure grant averages around $200,000, while non-infrastructure awards are usually in the $5,000 range. SRTS Michigan has funded a total of 140 schools since its inception in 2008, in addition to 11 schools funded under an initial 2003 pilot program. While the scope of SRTS projects varies greatly, Thomas says they all have the same intertwined objectives.
 
"You kind of have this spiral where there's so much traffic around the school that parents are afraid to have their kids walking to school, so they drive their kids to school," she says. "If we can pull that traffic element away it's going to be safer for kids to walk to school."
 
Not just about the exercise
 
Of course, the switch to walking or biking to school is beneficial to students' physical fitness. But that's not the only upside. Erica Briggs is the board chair of the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition, one of SRTS Michigan's partner affiliates. She says there are also health benefits in reduced air pollution around schools.
 
"The morning rush around schools is really pretty incredible, and the same thing happens at pickup time," she says. "You see these lines of cars that drive very slowly and are idling, which causes just incredible emissions. So air quality is often poorer around a neighborhood school at those times."
 
Thomas says increased physical activity can also have positive results for kids' behavior and academic performance, as noted in a 2012 study from the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
 
"[Kids who are driven] come to school a little more wound up, shall we say," she says. "If they just get a little exercise in the morning, they're going to have far fewer behavioral referrals through the day. And they're going to arrive at school much more ready to learn."
 
Most importantly, Briggs says the most common discovery kids (or adults) make when they begin walking or biking to school is that it's simply "more pleasant."
 
"You see your friends on the way to school, you smell good smells, and there's freedom to it," she says.
 
Tangible change: SRTS in Hamtramck
 
In Hamtramck, SRTS coordinator Anisa Sahoubah says the program provided yet another unique benefit: a rallying point for a variety of community members. 
 
"I think it's honestly one of the best programs that I've participated in," she says. "It's not anything that city government does, or an organization does, on their own. It's something that has to involve the residents on a personal level."
 
Sahoubah illustrates a key point about SRTS projects: they're often not managed by the schools themselves, but by local organizations and/or community members working with the school. Sahoubah is the youth and education director at ACCESS, a Hamtramck nonprofit that was one of the principal organizers of SRTS efforts in the city. ACCESS, school leaders and community members began planning work for the project in 2007. 
 
Sahoubah says a key element was a "walking audit," in which organizers walked the main routes from neighborhoods to schools and cataloged the various barriers for walking and biking students. In September 2008, seven Hamtramck schools received a total of just over $1 million in SRTS funds to repair sidewalks, install speed monitoring displays and sidewalks, and hold workshops for students and parents. Sahoubah says the clear improvements to local infrastructure were "empowering for the community."
 
"A lot of the time there's talk of things happening and nothing really happens," she says. "But with this, it was very tangible. The community was able to see the work being done. Obviously, when whole streets or sidewalks are repaired, that's something that's clearly visible."
 
Keeping the ball rolling: SRTS in Grosse Ile
 
Once a community's initial SRTS grant money comes in, there's still considerable ongoing work to be done. Three Grosse Ile schools received just under half a million dollars in SRTS money at the same time Hamtramck schools did in 2008, funding the installation of numerous sidewalks. The group that organized that project, headed by Grosse Ile parent Sarah Gilroy, is now passing the SRTS torch to Grosse Isle Township's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. The commission's chairperson, Brian Pawlik, says the next step is less about funding and more about continuing education.
 
"Where possible, we'll seek funding and support," he says. "But I know that a lot of it can be done without extra funding, through volunteers. A lot of the Safe Routes stuff in the past involved very capital-intensive projects. Now there are new children that need to be educated on proper safety, on proper walking etiquette. There's opportunities to help out with parents and teachers, so a lot of this has to do with education."
 
And education may be just what is needed to keep the SRTS ball rolling on Grosse Ile. Where SRTS brought Hamtramck community members together, it's stirred controversy among Grosse Ile residents who felt new sidewalks were disruptive to their property or unneeded. Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission secretary Erin Himmelspach says the island's unique community - "not quite rural, not quite suburb" - could make it a "more challenging" location for a SRTS project.
 
"Sometimes it is challenging to get things through politically," Himmelspach says. "I am impressed that they've done so much so far."
 
Slow path to progress
 
Local politics aren't the only barrier to getting an SRTS project going. Thomas says that while kids are often fairly enthusiastic about the idea of getting themselves to school, the biggest challenge is changing parents' ingrained worries about safety.
 
"When you talk to parents and ask, 'How many parents here walked to school when you were a kid?,' most of the hands in the room go up," she says. "And yet when you talk with them about letting their kids walk, they have this fear that it's not safe. And fear is one of those things, whether it's real or not, that you have to address and gradually change. The Internet and news are wonderful, but they also have created a lot of fear that is not really necessary."
 
While a handful of metro Detroit communities - Grosse Ile, Hamtramck, Pontiac, Highland Park and Ann Arbor - have received SRTS funding, the program has yet to gain widespread traction here. 
 
"I don't think it's made as much progress as we'd like it to," Thomas says. "We haven't made many inroads in the metro Detroit area."
 
Thomas attributes that to "interest level" in a program that, until recently, didn't actively advertise itself to communities. Thomas says she and her staff are changing that approach. They're making plans to take the program more directly to school districts, having recently conducted walking audits to generate interest in Oak Park and Warren. 
 
According to Erica Briggs, the reason for metro Detroit's limited interest in SRTS may be more deeply seated. Briggs says metro Detroiters are used to having school, work and other errands at driveable - not walkable - distances, and area neighborhoods reflect that.
 
"We have designed our communities not uniformly, but in many cases, pretty poorly," she says. "So if you start looking at the opportunities to shift behavior and infrastructure, it may not be enough to have a sidewalk outside of the school to change behavior. To make these programs work, you have to be living in a somewhat walkable community."
 
However, the first new wave of young metro-area walkers and bikers may help turn the tide for future generations. Briggs says that especially for children, active transportation is habit-forming. 
 
"When they start getting into these routines early in life, what I find is that they stick with it," she says. "I have a 5-year-old who's been riding his bike to school with me since he was 3. Now, when I get in the car to go somewhere, he'll say to me, ‘Hey, remember what you told me about that being bad for the earth?'"

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.