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Forward Motion: Transportation Planning

Safe Routes to School

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In 1980, six percent of children were overweight — one of every 17 kids. Now it is 16 percent nationwide, up to 27 percent for Black and Hispanic children. That’s one of every four kids.

Current health guidelines say adolescents need at least 20 minutes of sustained physical activity every day, and younger children need at least an hour. As the panting mother of an energetic first-grader, I can heartily attest to the veracity of this. Walking and biking are wonderful ways for kids to get that needed exercise. Yet, only 12 percent of children age five to fifteen walk or bike to school, and almost 70 percent of all children’s trips are by car. Among our nation’s population at large, walk trips have declined as a share of all trips by 40 percent since 1977, while driving trips have increased to almost 90 percent.

The upshot is that our country’s moms and dads are doing a lot of driving, not only to school, but to everything from soccer and gymnastics to ballet and marching band practice — trying to make sure their kids get exercise. Is it just me, or is there a conundrum here? And don’t get me started on the problem of rising asthma rates among children, who fill their lungs daily with the pounds of vehicle emissions that waft through our playgrounds and neighborhoods. …

The good news is that health agencies and community planners have started working together to support Safe Routes to School (SR2S), promoting walking and biking to school through community education, group activities, stricter traffic law enforcement, and safer streets.

SR2S programs are not terribly complicated or expensive. They are typically created by grassroots groups of parents, teachers, health agencies, and planners who start by focusing attention on kids in neighborhoods who could walk to school, but don’t.

Local SR2S programs work their way up to more challenging efforts like upgrading or adding sidewalks. They quickly catch on as a way to improve children’s health, take cars off the streets, and build community spirit. While most current SR2S programs focus on grades K-8, planners are hopeful that as programs mature, they will also deal with issues such as cutting down on the increasing number of teenagers driving to school.

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