Safe Routes to School program anticipates Walk to School Day in October

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On school days, Anyang Boyd walks with her daughter Mina to school every morning, or jogs along side with Mina as she bikes the five blocks from their house to Maury Elementary school. The mother and daughter have a few minutes of together time, get exercise, and feel part of the neighborhood, chatting with others on the way to school. We wanted to have a real neighborhood school so she can be part of it, said Boyd.

Encouraging healthy lifestyles and getting people involved in their neighborhoods are all part of the citys plan to promote the Safe Routes to School initiative, a national program spearheaded in Alexandria by a $517,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation. The grant will be spent in several areas to promote walking and biking to school through education, encouragement and engineering improvements. Currently, fewer than 20 percent of the students walk or bike to school, and wed like to see the numbers increase, said Yon Lambert, the citys Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Coordinator. This will encourage more active living, he added.

Walk to school day
In 2003, several city departments collaborated with the school system determining the walkability of schools, and identified a safe route to school plan for each school. In addition, numerous safety improvement projects were identified as well, which included traffic calming measures such as speed humps, sidewalk improvements, bike racks, and crossing lights. Although some traffic calming measures were completed by the city under the transportation funding, the work from the grant is expected to start in the fall, in time for Walk to School Day, on October 3. 

Jennifer Roda has three children at Charles Barrett Elementary and remembered the success of last years Walk to School Day. We did this for a day and it did work, she said. Last year, Roda was president of the PTA, but this year she is spearheading the creation of walking pools, at Barrett, which are similar to carpools. With some parents help, Rodas goal is to map out four different routes and arrange meeting places for walking groups. She is considering a point reward system or prizes for frequent walkers. Something that would tie into a fitness program, she said.

For her own children, she does try to encourage walking a few days a week. Last year, her children were walking on a regular basis in the fall, but stopped during the winter and started up again in the spring. They live about .5 miles from the school. A lot of times its the little things, to keep them exercising, she said.

Safe routes
On the national level, the Safe Routes to School Program was established in August 2005 as part of the most recent federal transportation re-authorization legislation called SAFETEA-LU, which stands for the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. The price tag of this bill was $244.1 billion and covers a wide range of transportation improvements across the country. Having these federal funds is important, said Von Lambert. Statewide, the program is funded with $13 million through 2009, and Alexandrias program is entirely grant funded so it requires no city matching funds.

Of the $517,000 allotted for Alexandria, $25,000 goes to five schools identified by the city as the most walkable schools. These include Francis C. Hammond Middle School, Jefferson-Houston, Charles Barrett, James K. Polk and George Mason Elementary schools. The other $492,000 is for intersection improvements around schools, countdown and audible crosswalk signals, bike racks and sidewalk improvements. Lambert noticed that the schools where walking is most prevalent are the schools where the parents are the most involved, he said.

Suzanne Johnson lives near Polk Elementary, and her children walk almost everyday. There are lots of advantages to walking fresh air, exercise, less traffic around the school, teaching environmental awareness and teaching good pedestrian skills. Of course, there is also the motivation of using less gasoline, said Johnson, responding via email.

For Mina and Anyang Boyd, who feel the intersection at Commonwealth Avenue needs help, the improvements will be welcome. Thats where you really need a crossing guard, Anyang said.

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