success stories

Children Walking to School: A Success Story on how to live healthier,
pollute less and enjoy nature

New program aims to restore lost tradition of walking to school
By Dave Hrbacek
Catholic News Service

Most baby boomers remember walking or biking to school. Increasingly, that is becoming a foreign experience for today's schoolchildren, said Alice Tibbetts, director of a new program called Safe Routes, which is designed to get kids out of cars and on their feet and pedals.

The program kicked off in January with the goal of helping public and private schools encourage their students to walk and bike to school -- or form car pools at the very least.

Tibbetts searched for a school that would be interested in being a pilot school for the program. Having sent her twin boys to St. Mark School in St. Paul for a year, she and other parents approached principal Molly Whinnery, who quickly and happily agreed.

"We chose (St. Mark) for several reasons," Tibbetts said. "No. 1, they had struggled with traffic issues and too many parents driving their kids to school. And, we had a group of parents who wanted to do the program. The third reason is it's in a neighborhood that has the (right) infrastructure. It has sidewalks, it has controlled intersections."

The program kicked off in May with a special event at the school and continued through the end of the year. Even in that short amount of time, Tibbetts said, the results were dramatic.

Parent volunteers kept track of the volume of car and pedestrian traffic at the corner of Prior and Dayton Avenues, considered the busiest -- and most dangerous -- intersection used by students and parents.

"We increased walking by 53 percent and we decreased the number of cars at that intersection by 23 percent," Tibbetts said. "I think that the feeling around the school (about the program) is even more dramatic than those numbers show. A lot of parents commented on the reduction in traffic."

Among those parents was Barb Thoman. Her daughter, Robin Welling, who will be a fifth-grader this fall, made some new friends because of the program.

"That's been one of the nicest things about (Safe Routes) -- getting to know more of the people in our neighborhood," Thoman said. "It's been community building as well as getting kids out exercising.

"I had often walked my daughter to school myself," she added. "After the program started, we started walking with other kids in the neighborhood. We made a conscious effort to hook up with other families. That's what made the difference."

Like Tibbetts, Thoman is part of an organization that promotes alternatives to driving. She's the program director for Transit for Livable Communities and has observed the Safe Routes concept on a national level, in places like New York and California. She predicts that all 50 states will have a Safe Routes program by the end of this decade.

Challenges to spreading the program include the convenience and feeling of security that come with driving.

"The premise (for driving) is that parents don't think it's safe for their kids to walk or bike to school," Tibbetts said. "Because they believe that, more parents are driving, and when more parents are driving, there's more traffic. So, it becomes a vicious cycle."

Eventually, the increased traffic makes people concerned about accidents. Whinnery was one of them. "I was always afraid that kids would get hit by a car because there are so many kids getting dropped off," she said. "Thank God that's never happened."

Whinnery also was concerned that all of the tasks involved in running the program (data recording and tabulating, incentive programs for students) would tax the teachers and staff. But, Thoman and other parents kept that from happening.

"The parents actually did the bulk of the work," Whinnery said. "They came through on everything. They made the tally sheets, they coordinated the kickoff, they ran the incentives and the pep rallies. They really, truly did the work."

St. Mark plans to run the program for the 2002-2003 school year. Joining the school will be Randolph Heights Elementary just a couple of miles away. Tibbetts and Thoman are hoping that parents and students will find the program appealing for both safety and health reasons.

"Childhood obesity is skyrocketing," Tibbetts said. "Kids are getting fatter and more sedentary. By encouraging kids to walk and bike every day, it's a built-in time for exercise. Plus, kids learn better when they get exercise on their way to school."

That's why Tibbetts is encouraging parents who live too far away from the school to walk or bike to drop their kids off four to six blocks away from school so they can get at least some exercise.