REYES: Creating safe environments for children to walk to school
Opinions Column: Concrete Jungle Gym
Most large universities are highly accessible spaces for alternative modes of transportation and Rutgers University is no exception. For too many of us, traveling between campuses is the first opportunity in our lives to walk or bike to school, and doing it safely is challenging in parts of New Brunswick.
This is part of an unfortunate national trend which has seen, in the span of one generation, the percentage of children walking and bicycling to school dropping from approximately 50 percent in 1969 to only 13 percent in 2009. Parents and children cite numerous barriers to walking and bicycling including distance, traffic danger and crime. The majority of U.S. students are privately driven to and from school, eliminating an opportunity to be physically active and ultimately contributing to the obesity crisis. Kids today are less active than ever with 23 percent of children getting no free time physical activity. This has a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities — more than half of Latina girls and approximately half of African-American girls are expected to get diabetes over their lifetimes.
Circumstances force many children to walk or bike to school because their parents work early or do not have access to a car. This leaves children traveling in areas without sidewalks, crosswalks, stop lights, and other infrastructure to keep them safe. This leads to over 23,000 injuries and more than 250 deaths of children ages 5-15 and nearly $900 million in associated medical costs.
These issues are ever present in the minds of parents, public officials and residents across the world. Walk to School Day began in the U.S. in 1997 to increase awareness of the need for walkable communities. The event has since become international with more than 40 countries participating and inclusive of bicycling as another mode of active transportation. Its success, along with the hard work of dedicated staff and volunteers, led to the August 2005 passage of federal legislation establishing the National Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Program that provided $612 million towards state programs until 2010. Now, SRTS receives funding under the U.S. Department of Transportation's Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP).
On Oct. 5, we celebrated the 20th International Walk and Bike to School Day but students, parents, teachers and community members are participating in walk and bike events throughout the month of October. Not only does SRTS highlight issues like encouraging healthy lifestyles, increasing physical activity and child safety but also traffic congestion, public health and environmental protection. Consider that in 2009, American families made 6.5 billion vehicle trips on school commutes and over half of those trips were between 1/4 and 1/2 mile. Traffic would be significantly reduced if these shorter trips were traveled on foot or by bike.
Furthermore, keeping cars off the road would improve air quality in and around schools. Children exposed to traffic pollution are more likely to have asthma and at a higher risk of contracting heart and lung diseases as adults. If we were to return to 1969 levels of walking and bicycling to school, we could prevent the emission of 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and 89,000 tons of other harmful pollutants — equal to keeping 250,000 cars off the road for one year.
Our state's SRTS program, the NJ SRTS Resource Center, is proudly hosted here at Rutgers University, managed by the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center (VTC) within the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Providing technical assistance to public officials, transportation and health professionals and the general public, NJ SRTS is helping to foster safe, accessible walking and bicycling through research, education and communications. This semester, Leigh Ann Von Hagen, NJ SRTS Senior Research Specialist, and Sean Meehan, Project Manager, are engaging Bloustein graduate students in an Urban Planning practicum to develop a Districtwide School Travel Plan for the city of Bayonne. Efforts like these can identify solutions to improve pedestrian and bicycle travel for students and families.
There are numerous ways to be a part of this movement. Plan an event like a walking school bus or bike train, join your community's SRTS Task Force or advocate for supportive federal, regional, state, and municipal policies. The benefits of walking and bicycling are extensive — as local “champions” we can advance active transportation for kids of all races, ethnicities, income levels and abilities because every child deserves the opportunity to thrive.
Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Concrete Jungle Gym," runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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