Regional Safe Routes to School meeting showcased efforts to make it safer for kids to walk and bike to school

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The TPB’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Subcommittee recently co-hosted a regional network meeting of Safe Routes to School of Greater Washington. The TPB and Safe Routes to School share goals for improving bicycle and pedestrian safety, and several TPB funding opportunities support projects aimed at making it safer for kids to walk or bike to school.

Safe Routes to School and shared regional goals

The Safe Routes to School National Partnership is a network of organizations across the United States  working to encourage safe walking and biking to and from schools. The Greater Washington Regional Network brings together advocacy, education, health, transportation, and planning professionals to support local programs and policies to create safer communities.

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District of Columbia Public School students finish up a group ride. The TPB supports Safe Routes to School because encouraging biking and walking and promoting safety are regional priorities.  (DCPS)

While the national partnership focuses on high-level policy proposals and advises the regional and state programs, the regional network focuses on safety interventions at the school level. In schools, Safe Routes coordinators educate children about safety, work with the community and parents to encourage kids to walk and bike, and identify potential infrastructure enhancements, like crosswalks, sidewalks, or better road design.

The TPB supports Safe Routes to School because encouraging biking and walking and promoting safety are regional priorities. The TPB’s Regional Transportation Priorities Plan specifically highlights these issues as key areas of focus. Encouraging kids to bike and walk also has other benefits, including fostering independence, helping kids stay healthy through physical activity, and even reducing congestion by removing trips that parents make driving their children to school.

Local school districts’ Safe Routes education efforts

The February 28 network meeting provided a chance for Safe Routes coordinators, educators, planners, and volunteers from across the region to share updates and accomplishments from their respective school districts. A panel of coordinators and planners from Fairfax County, the District of Columbia, and Montgomery County highlighted their achievements.

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Fairfax County’s Safe Routes program has accomplished a lot, including having the most successful Walk to School Day event in the country. (Fairfax County Public Schools)

In Fairfax County, the Safe Routes program recorded more kids participating in Walk to School Day—an annual event that occurs each fall—than any other district in the country. The school system has been working on improving the environment around schools with a School Yard Stewardship grant that funded air quality data collection at drop-off locations, signs promoting walking and biking to school, a student travel tally, and a walk-about with parents, teachers, administrators, and planners to identify potential safety improvements. The school district also provided bikes to 24 schools for bike safety lessons and five schools have their own fleet of bikes.

In the District of Columbia, the Safe Routes program has wide institutional support from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). The District’s Safe Routes coordinator plays an all-encompassing role that includes overseeing safety classes as well as infrastructure enhancements and safety initiatives like crossing guards.

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All second-grade students in DCPS schools learn to ride a bike as part of their physical education curriculum. (DCPS)

The school system’s physical education curriculum also includes teaching all second-graders how to ride a bike. DCPS is sharing the learn-to-ride curriculum and experiences with other jurisdictions in the region. While no other school district has started a district-wide bike education program, Alexandria is starting a pilot program at select schools based on the DCPS curriculum.

In Montgomery County, Safe Routes has launched new safety classes for kids. Teachers can use signs and lead students in singing safety-themed songs to help them learn and remember how to safely cross the street. The program allows children to practice in the school gym before heading out on the sidewalk. And the county is also considering a draft Vision Zero policy—an international road traffic safety project that aims to achieve a highway system with no fatalities or serious injuries. If passed,  the policy would further support Safe Routes efforts in safety education and safer infrastructure in the county.

Along with the reports from the local school districts, TPB staff also shared how the TPB is supporting safety education region-wide. The TPB’s twice-yearly Street Smart campaign broadcasts mass media messages about road safety for all users, reminding motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists alike about being safe on the roads. Some Safe Routes to School programs in the region have used similar messaging with their students. Montgomery County developed their “YOLO” campaign using the Street Smart template. YOLO, internet slang for “you only live once,” incorporates key Street Smart messages but features students posing as the “tired faces” in the campaign.

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Montgomery County’s “YOLO” campaign uses the Street Smart template with student models. Students wrote the messages to accompany the images. (MCDOT)

Building better infrastructure and finding ways to pay for it

Making it safer for children to walk and bike to school also requires better street design and efforts to keep areas around schools safe from traffic.

At the February 28 event, planners from Toole Design Group, a planning consulting firm, led an exercise in learning the steps for planning temporary “pop-up” safety enhancements—short term or one-time road or trail changes using signs, chalk, planters, or tape to show how some simple changes can make the areas leading to the school safer or more appealing for people walking.

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Attendees at the Feb. 28 meeting worked in small groups as part of a “design your own pop-up” exercise led by planners from Toole Design Group. “Pop-up” interventions like temporary signage and sidewalk and trail markings can demonstrate the value of more permanent Safe Routes improvements.  (TPB)

Some pop-ups change traffic patterns to show how new signage can change the traffic flow so there are safer places to cross the street. In some cases, a pop-up demonstration can be so successful that it could be made into a permanent change.

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At a pop-event in Georgia, temporary changes to traffic patterns showed how the modifications would improve safety for those on foot or bicycle. (Toole Design Group)

Getting these kinds of improvements funded and built can sometimes be a challenge. This is where TPB support can help. Through its Transportation/Land Use Connections (TLC) program, the TPB provides free technical assistance for planning or designing projects that promote safety, biking and walking, access to transit, and connecting Activity Centers. And, through its role selecting projects to receive federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) funding, the TPB can also award construction funds to such projects.

RELATED: How TLC helped jumpstart a trail project in Prince George’s County

MORE: Learn about TAP and other funding opportunities for bicycle and pedestrian projects in Maryland

Gearin’ Up Bicycles showcased its community outreach efforts

Once kids learn to ride, they still may need a bike and many neighborhoods don’t have access to affordable bike shops. Enter Gearin’ Up Bicycles, a DC-based nonprofit that teaches kids how to repair their own bikes and also provides pop-up shops in neighborhoods without bicycle repair shops.

Gearin’ Up Bicycles Executive Director Sterling Stone spoke at the February 28 Safe Routes meeting. He explained that kids from all over the region can learn to fix up a bike. Once they learn how, kids can start to build their own bike through the earn-a-bike program at the shop or in school-based programs. Once they graduate from Gearin’ Up, some get jobs in area bike shops. The organization also has classes for adults so that everyone can repair or build their own bikes and get back to riding.

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Kids can learn how to fix bikes and eventually build their own through Gearin’ Up Bicycles’ Earn-a-Bike program. (Gearin’ Up Bicycles)

Stone explained that Gearin’ Up has given kids new feelings of freedom and also helped them focus. He said that it has also exposed kids to others from other parts of the region and created opportunities for them to bond in the shop and biking on the region’s trails.

More: Get all the presentations and learn more about Safe Routes to School of Greater Washington

Cover photo by Safe Routes to School National Partnership

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