POSTED ON MARCH 14, 2012:
A Safe Way Forward
U.S. Congressional committee cuts budget for elementary school biking and walking program for kids
An amazing thing happened after a Safe Routes to School bicycle safety program for kids at McClure Elementary School. The schoolís former principal, Susan Baston, said, ìAs part of the Safe Routes to School, we had a HUB program come and do a session on bicycle safety.î
After that, ìAll of a sudden, the bike racks filled up with kidsí bikes because the kids were riding their bikes to and from school,î Baston said. ìWe saw a large number of kids take advantage of riding their bikes to school.î
Baston was the principal for McClure for the last 12 years, but recently took a position as principal of Bunch Early Childhood Development Center. Now, she said ìall of my four-year-olds are delivered by parents, daycare or bus,î but Baston still speaks glowingly of the Safe Routes program.
At McClure, ìdepending on the time of year, we had a large number of students who were responsible for getting themselves to school each day either by walking or by riding a bike,î she said.
But the school is at a disadvantage because it lacks surrounding sidewalks and school bus service. ìThere were no school buses providing transportation and many of the families didnít have transportation, so walking and riding bikes are so importantî for McClure kids, Baston said.
Enter the federal Safe Routes to School program. McClure uses the program to help kids map out safe ways to school, and learn about bicycle and pedestrian safety.
But the economy is in trouble, and the federal budget is spiraling up, up and out of control. And now Safe Routes is on the chopping block.
ìIf they get rid of the program,î Baston said, ìthe concern would be children being unsafe. You would have children without the training in bicycle safety.î
Though McClure kids may have bikes, they didnít often have ìany training, a lock or a helmet,î Baston said. These are three things provided by the Safe Routes program.
The program evolved after decades of research on the safety of kids walking and biking to school. A federal Department of Transportation publication from 1975, titled ìSchool Trip Safety and Urban Play Areas,î outlined what would later become Safe Routes.
The program was first used in Denmark in the late 1970s as a way to cut down on the number of children who were killed while walking and biking to school, according to Safe Routes historical information on its website, saferoutesinfo.org.
Safe Routes program have popped up throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the States.
A small pilot program started in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1997. The following year, Congress funded two pilot Safe Routes programs ó one in Marin County, Calif., and another in Arlington, Mass.
In July 2005, Congress passed federal legislation to establish a National Safe Routes to School program. The program allocated $612 million to Safe Routes programs between 2005 and 2009.
Now, however, the funding is in danger of being cut. A U.S. House committee eliminated Safe Routes to School programs and other initiatives that promote bicycling and walking, according to Andrew Sousa, Leadership for Healthy Communities communications director.
The U.S. Senate is set to vote on its bill this week which preserves Safe Routes to School, but in a way that it will have to compete with other programs for funding.
The elimination of the program would likely affect more than 12,300 schools across the nation, including McClure and four other schools in Tulsa.
In 1969, almost half of all students walked or biked to school, and most lived within a mile of their school. Now, less than one in seven walk or bike to school, according to some estimates.
Not only do Safe Routes programs address a growing obesity epidemic, but they also help prevent tragic traffic accidents. One in four child traffic deaths happen while kids are walking and biking. In Tulsa, Safe Routes federal funding has been used to construct sidewalks, safe access routes and school zone improvements like pedestrian signals, lighting and school zone signage, according to Sousa.
The funding also offers safety programs, like the six-week bike education course that proved so popular and successful at McClure. Support for the Safe Routes program doesnít end with federal funding. Community members, private donors and local businesses have supported the program by providing new bicycles and equipment to more than 150 students who have learned about bicycle safety from certified instructors.
The programís walking and biking focus comes at a time when more than one in five school districts are cutting back on school busing to save money. But some local lawmakers are taking action. District 5 City Councilor Karen Gilbert and State Rep. Seneca Scott (D-Tulsa) are working together to save the program, which is in place at Owen, Mark Twain, Marshall and Rosa Parks Elementary Schools (in addition to McClure).
Gilbert is a former Tulsa Parent Teacher Association president and has worked for Tulsa Public Schools for 10 years.
Want to join Gilbert and Scott in working to save Safe Routes? Contact your senators and state representatives, and heck even your mayor, principal or community leaders to get them to call on Oklahoma leaders to save the program, too.
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