School is back in session, and if you are a parent like me, you greeted it with mixed emotions-welcoming the return to a predictable schedule but lamenting the end of the extra, carefree time with your children.
We greet this new school year with optimism, and this fall, we can be particularly optimistic about an opportunity to plan for an initiative that has the possibility to improve the health of your children, your community, and the environment-Safe Routes to School. Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a national initiative intended to enable and encourage children to walk or bicycle to school.
With the passage of SAFETEA-LU in 2005, Congress provided $612 million in competitive grant funding to establish SRTS programs in every state across the nation. In Virginia, the SRTS program was allocated just over $13 million. To date, almost $4 million has been awarded to 21 school districts and communities throughout the state, from the large urban areas such as Virginia Beach to the smaller communities like Bedford County. Schools and communities across Virginia are starting programs or making infrastructure improvements so that their students may safely walk or bicycle to their school.
There is more funding to be awarded. SRTS funds are managed by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), and VDOT recently released guidelines on applying for the next round of funds so that even more communities can start SRTS programs. See www.virginiadot.org/saferoutes
Over the summer you may have read articles about school districts looking for solutions to stop the hemorrhaging of their budgets due to rising prices of diesel. Some of those districts proposed eliminating busing for children living within a mile or two of school. While it seems like the prices have peaked for the time being, diesel prices in the Central Atlantic states still average about $4.16/gallon-up more than $1.11/gallon from a year ago (source: tonto.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/gdu/gasdiesel.asp, accessed 9/16/08). Across the country, schools and communities that have employed SRTS are realizing the cost-saving elements of this program.
But thats not the only benefit realized from SRTS programs. Walking or bicycling to school provides great physical activity for our children, and there has been considerable ink dedicated to the health crisis facing our children today. In fact, its widely believed that our children will have a shorter life expectancy than we do. This is due to the dramatic consequences of declining health and diseases such as type II diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol increasingly being diagnosed in our youth. Our children were designed to be active and because of changes to their environment and the schedules of the day, the opportunities to be active have been compromised.
In addition to helping to reduce school transportation costs and increasing physical activity, SRTS is an effective tool in reducing traffic congestion near schools, instilling lifelong skills for safe walking and bicycling behavior, connecting our children to the natural environment, increasing neighborhood safety through community awareness, and even in improving air quality.
As I mentioned earlier, VDOT has just released its guidelines for the next round of SRTS applications. In addition to those guidelines, they have scheduled a series of public workshops throughout the state to discuss the details of the application procedures. Starting this week, they will host several workshops across the state. More information can be found on their website (www.virginiadot.org/saferoutes).
I encourage parents and school and community leaders to consider the benefits of a SRTS program in your community. There are funds to help you develop a program, and the State PTA (www.vapta.org) or the Virginia SRTS Network members serve as a resource. The benefits are great-not only for our children but for your entire community. In fact, on Wednesday, October 8, celebrate International Walk to School Day with millions of other students from around the globe and see just how much fun it can be (www.walktoschool.org).
Rob Krupicka is Alexandria City Council Chair and a member of the Virginia SRTS Network