When you work on federal policy issues and live in Washington you don’t often see policy put into practice. But last Wednesday, policy was in action all around the country – on National Bike to School Day. Bike to School Day is part of the Safe Routes to School program, promoted by the National Center for Safe Routes to School and the Safe Routes to School Partnership, a national effort to encourage more children to walk and bike to school. With schools around the country cutting PE and recess, we need more efforts to make sure children get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Research has shown that both biking and walking to school are an effective means of getting kids active.
Safe Routes to School (SRTS) has evolved since it was first introduced in 1997 as a pilot program with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In July 2005, Congress passed federal legislation that established a National Safe Routes to School program to improve safety and encourage children to walk and bike to school. According the National Center on Safe Routes, “The program, which was signed into law in August 2005, dedicated a total of $612 million towards SRTS from 2005 to 2009. The Federal Highway Administration administered the Safe Routes to School program funds and provided guidance and regulations about SRTS programs. Federal SRTS funds were distributed to states based on student enrollment, with no state receiving less than $1 million per year. SRTS funds could be used for both infrastructure projects and non-infrastructure activities. The legislation also required each state to have a Safe Routes to School Coordinator to serve as a central point of contact for the state.”
Funding for Safe Routes has now changed. In July 2012, Congress passed a new transportation bill: Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), which bundles multiple programs including the Transportation Enhancements program and Recreational Trails program, as part of a new program called Transportation Alternatives. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is charged with putting the legislation into practice, and it provides information about MAP-21 on its website.
I have been lucky to see Safe Route to School in action on two levels. In 2008, at my son’s public school in Washington, DC, we competed for and won a SRTS grant. We reversed school policy that prevented kids from biking to school without special permission, installed bike racks, added an extra crossing guard and started a school safety patrol that limited parking around the school, which encouraged more families to walk and bike. What I am most proud of is that we partnered with the multiple senior homes in the area to get the DC Department of Transportation to lengthen the timing of the lights across a busy street, which allowed both children and seniors the extra time they needed to walk safely across the street. As part of this work, we even discovered that seniors were only going shopping when the school crossing guards were out because they felt safer with a guard’s assistance. Getting the grant was great, but ultimately the program worked because we combined that grant with dedicated parent volunteers and strong leadership. By 2009, our local school effort won the National Oberstar Award.
I have since left Washington and live in a small town in northwest Colorado called Steamboat Springs. Here, we don’t wait for an annual Bike Day; every Thursday is Bike and Hike to School Day. Over the past eight years, leaders have been trying to make Steamboat -Biketown USA- which includes encouraging more students to walk and bike to school. The community received a non-infrastructure Safe Routes to School grant that included developing a map with safe routes and bike safety trainings for the elementary schools. With support from a local non-profit called LiveWell Colorado and a number of local businesses, Safe Routes to School has expanded. And just this year, the Safe Routes to School coordinator has applied for local funding to increase the number of hiking/biking trails to make it safer for children to walk and ride to school.
The original Safe Routes to School federal legislation gave grants to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This federal funding and policy became the seed and the catalyst to bring even more support from businesses, non-profits and local governments to expand and implement a program that benefits kids and families.
At BPC we work to shape policy, but recognize that implementation of policy is key. Safe Routes to School is a great way to implement HHS’s policy that adults get 30 minutes of physical activity each day and kids get 60 minutes a day. This week, I ask all of you—policymakers, staff, moms and dads: when can you walk or bike to school or work? How can you encourage others to do the same?
Robin Schepper is a senior advisor at BPC and a former executive director of the Let’s Move Initiative at the White House. She can be reached at [email protected]
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