In 1969, eight out of 10 kids walked or biked to school. Nowadays, only three out of 10 do, and the number is even lower in neighborhoods that aren’t “walkable.” What happened? Well, a lot, including that we’ve been building bigger schools, which forces many new schools out onto the edge of town, too far to walk or bike; we’ve become more focused on scary concepts like “stranger danger,” even though rates of violent crime have consistently decreased since 1978, and we’ve built streets and towns to maximize automobile speeds, resulting too often in fast, wide, sprawling streets that don’t feel safe or secure for our children.
But a movement to change all of that has been taking root in the U.S.: it is called Safe Routes to School and it is an approach to creating better walking and bicycling conditions between schools and the neighborhoods they serve, teaching kids how to safely navigate streets, and encouraging parents to let their kids out the door in the morning on foot or bicycle.
Progress: personally gratifying
My love for bikes started when I was eight and rode a bike for the first time. I felt free and powerful and I loved the wind in my face when I rode my bike. (I also looked super cool with sunglasses, driving gloves, and a stick shift on the bike. Okay, well, at least I thought I looked cool.)
Perhaps this early experience is what sparked my lifetime dedication to improving walking and bicycling conditions for all. Over the past couple of decades I have been lucky enough to help hundreds of communities throughout the country build their own Safe Routes programs, policies and projects; manage bicycle safety education programs that reached thousands of students; direct Earn-a-Bike and riding programs for underprivileged youth; and serve on the congressional Safe Routes task force. These days, I get to travel all over the U.S. and Canada, speaking about walking and biking, and facilitating technical workshops.
Given this, you can imagine how gratified I am to know that more than 14,000 schools nationwide are now participating in Safe Routes to School. This month, the movement gets a shot in the arm from National Bike Month and National Bike to School Day. More kids than ever are walking and biking to school during special bike events this month. Indeed, since the launch of the movement, we have seen a promising shift in how kids get to and from school. For example, in 2004, I managed the launch of Portland's Safe Routes program; it started with eight schools and now includes more than 80. Forty percent of Portland's students now walk and bike to school! It isn't 1969 again, but those are decent numbers, and other communities are making the changes needed to achieve similar, or better, results.
Taking Safe Routes to the next level
The movement has arrived. I think we have hit the national tipping point, frankly.
Now it is time to take Safe Routes to the next level. Building on the many successes already achieved, schools and school districts that already have launched Safe Routes efforts are now ready to tackle issues of sustainability, long-term funding, strategies for implementing future projects, and capturing the outcomes of their efforts and communicating those outcomes to their communities. Some Safe Routes schools already are doing so, and the results are phenomenal.
The world is changing. Well, I know this is a cliché, but it is because it is true – always. Change is inevitable, and change is hard because it can be unpredictable. The recent U.S. elections are proof of that. A lot of people were blindsided by the results, even those who voted for the eventual winners. Dramatic change is ahead in this country, at least for a few years, if not for a long time. Some of us are happy about that, some of us are not.
For those who have been part of the change towards livability these recent changes may be scary, even depressing. But change at the federal level can only go so far. There are states, regions, cities, towns and rural areas, and each one of these can determine much of its own future, with or without federal influence.
The movement towards livability is strong. So strong that I believe it will continue despite what may or may not happen nationally in the near future. Most of this momentum is taking place in cities, of all sizes and shapes. We see this firsthand in the work we do at the WALC Institute working directly in communities and we learn about other successful livability initiatives every single day. I believe we are past the livability tipping point in America.
For example, the Complete Streets movement has been led by forward-thinking cities, by advocates and city leaders who know that people want to be in places that are safe, comfortable and people-friendly. Local successes have worked their way upstream and are inspiring states and those inside the Washington, D.C. ‘Beltline’ to realize that Complete Streets are good for streets, people and economies, as long as we can avoid residential displacement along the way. It is positive change at the community level that has created the momentum.
The federal government is now ramping up to scale things down, so to speak, and many state governments will follow this new, old trend. But I believe that forward-thinking cities can continue to improve livability for their citizens, led by local leaders and community members, even though support from the state and national level will likely shrink. The most livable cities got through the Great Recession with only minor bruises, after all. The cities that haven’t made strides toward livability are working harder to keep from falling behind.
We will see a (temporary) slowdown in federal funding for livability initiatives, but I don’t believe we will see a serious loss of momentum and passion for a more livable future. The world is changing. And good things are going to keep happening--at least at the local level.
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