Walking, bicycling could unclog school traffic jams

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Saturday, April 25, 2009
— Principals alert parents every year. They preach. They even get out of their offices and patrol the sidewalks and parking lots.

But traffic still clogs streets around Janesville elementary schools each morning and each afternoon. And some impatient parents violate the rules—driving into the elementary school parking lots, for example—raising the risk that kids could get hit.

A new effort to encourage kids to walk or bicycle to school might ease the congestion. That was the idea when parents, police and school staff members met at the school district’s central office last week.

They had been there before. A taskforce of police and school staffs studied the problem a few years ago and made changes.

Rodonna Amiel, principal of Lincoln Elementary School, spoke the minds of other principals at the meeting: “It can’t be the same old, same old, because (the last taskforce) didn’t solve our problems.”

The meeting was called by the city, which has a $20,000 planning grant that could lead to a state Safe Routes to School grant to make improvements.

As part of the planning process, the city is setting up a taskforce of officials and parents to seek ways to encourage kids to walk or ride their bikes to school. Once a plan is ready next year, the city would apply for a grant.

Of course, more kid power and less gasoline power has other benefits, including taking a bite out of childhood obesity, noted Terry Nolan, who is overseeing the taskforce for the city.

Nolan said the Safe Routes program seeks to fight the generational shift in how kids get to school. She pointed to a national study showing that 42 percent of children walked to school in 1969, while only 16 percent did so in 2001.

Surveys show parents’ top reasons for driving their kids to school: distance, traffic danger, weather and fear of crime. But weather hasn’t changed in 40 years, Nolan noted, and the chance of a child being kidnapped on the way to school is about the same chance as being struck by lightning.

Traffic has increased, but that’s partly because parents are driving kids to school, so the parents are only contributing to the problem they hope to avoid.

The principals committed to surveying their students and parents about the ways kids get to school. Principals also are looking for volunteers who will walk with their children and fill out an inventory of impediments to safe walking.

A principal asked Nolan what the city wants to get out of the grant. Nolan said the goals are purely to make walking and biking safer and more frequent.

“I want to be aggressive, to get as much money as I can for the school district and the city,” she said.

Nolan is planning a taskforce meeting for August to review the survey results and plan future steps.

What’s the money for?

-- Safe Routes to School grant could pay for a variety of efforts to encourage kids to walk to school, including:

-- Teach kids safety skills and rules of the road.

-- Rebuild streets to make them safer. For example, installing “bump-outs,” which extend a street corner into the street, slowing traffic and shortening the crossing distance for pedestrians.

-- Increase law enforcement, which can reduce parents’ perception of danger.

-- Hold awards programs and competitions to get kids excited about walking or biking.

-- Establish walking routes and mark pedestrian crossings.

-- Pay for crossing guards.

For more information, call Terry Nolan of the Janesville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, (608) 755-3095.

Last updated: 10:04 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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