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A hard sell: walking and biking to school

On a sunny Friday morning, first-grader Jordan Walker donned her pink Dora the Explorer backpack and set off for school with her mother, Melissa Walker.

The two walked through the quiet side streets of Denver’s West Colfax neighborhood. Halfway to Colfax Elementary they met up with a family friend, Barbara Billings, who accompanied them the rest of the way.

Despite an abundance of neighborhood children who attend the school, the three were alone on the 15-minute walk until they were just across Colfax Avenue from the school, alongside a used car lot. A few other walkers appeared there, but many more kids climbed out of idling cars in front of the school.

It’s a fact that frustrates and demoralizes Melissa Walker. Last fall, she organized a “walking school bus,” so Colfax students could gather at designated meeting spots and walk to school with parents or other adult chaperones like Billings or her husband Jeff. The project, which included seven children at its height, fell apart after a couple months.

“The parents weren’t that interested,” said Walker.

Walker started the walking bus in the interest of safety. She’d seen unaccompanied kindergarten and first grade children escorting younger siblings to school. She’d seen the alarm on children’s faces when encountering a mentally ill man shouting gibberish. She’d worried about the heavy traffic on Colfax and, until it was adjusted mid-year, the short green light that would sometimes turn yellow then red while kids were still crossing. Although some school staff had also expressed concern about these problems, Walker said the administration wasn’t particularly supportive of her plan.

Walker’s experience demonstrates some of the unique challenges involved in getting children to walk or bike to school in urban neighborhoods where concerns about traffic safety, stranger danger or criminal activity often trump concerns about children not getting enough fresh air and exercise. Even professionals who advocate for active transportation like biking and walking, admit that overcoming parental fears, not to mention a car-oriented culture, can be daunting.

Tackling the culture shift

Lauren Croucher, the injury prevention coordinator at Denver Health, has led the seven-year-old Denver Safe Routes to School Coalition since 2011. She said the toughest thing about getting kids to walk or bike to school is overcoming cultural norms that make walking and biking a back-up plan instead of the first choice.

At schools where walk- and bike-to-school efforts have been successful, she said “There’s really been a critical mass that helps tip this thing in the right direction…The places that have been successful are the places that have addressed the culture shift.”

Croucher, who has increasingly focused on shaping policy to encouraging walking and biking, said achieving that shift can be very difficult for a lone parent like Walker.

Liz Van Nostrand, the school nurse at Colfax, can attest to that, naming a litany of ills that impact the school. Test scores are low, attendance is spotty and parent engagement is “really pathetic.” Of the school’s 420 students, 97 percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. About 83 percent live within a mile of the school.

“It’s just a really tough area,” she said. “You have families who are not functioning at the top of the scale and their lives are really chaotic.”

And previous special events, like a walk-to-school day, haven’t made much impact.

“I don’t think it got very far,” said Gertraud Torrez, a preschool teacher at Colfax.

Torrez said that about three of her 15 students walk to school most days. The rest don’t because of safety concerns, she said as she leafed through a stack of parent surveys where that worry surfaced repeatedly.

New pedestrian push in Denver

Over the years, various Denver schools, including Colfax, have received mini-grants or safety programming funded by the National Safe Routes to School program, which was created in 2005. But schools were often referred by word of mouth and the work was done in a fragmented way, said Jenna Berman, education director for Bicycle Colorado.

Now, Berman and other advocates are hoping a new $117,000 Safe Routes to School grant will usher in a new, more strategic effort to encouraging biking and walking among children in high-needs pockets of Denver.

Eight elementary schools, including five in southwest Denver, will benefit from the grant. All were chosen based on their ranking in a new data matrix created by Croucher that prioritizes all DPS elementary, middle and K-8 schools based on need. The matrix weighs factors such as the number of pedestrians involved in car accidents near a school, the percentage of low-income students and the percentage of students living within one mile of the school.

“Next year is kind of a launching of a new push,” said Berman.

While Denver Health is the official grant recipient, staff from Bicycle Colorado and BikeDenver will provide bike and walking safety education in each school’s physical education classes next year. In addition, WalkDenver will conduct walkability audits around each school that examine infrastructure issues such as missing sidewalks, high speed traffic or not enough green light time for crossing streets.

Gosia Kung, executive director of WalkDenver, said the combination of safety education and infrastructure assessments represents a more comprehensive approach. She hopes that once infrastructure problems are identified, capital improvement grants will be sought to continue the momentum.

Van Nostrand knows firsthand the challenges of getting infrastructure needs addressed. Last fall, after complaints from the school’s wellness team about the short green light at the corner of Colfax and Tennyson, she repeatedly contacted the city to increase its length and secure a countdown meter indicating the number of seconds left for a safe crossing.

“I basically just harassed somebody,” she said.

That kind of persistence may well be another key ingredient for pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Next year, Berman hopes that besides educating students about walking and biking safety at the eight schools, the work will impact parents too.

“Then we can arm them and support their process in accessing local government,” she said.

Who cares if kids walk to school?

Does it matter if kids walk or bike to school? Advocates say it’s a public health issue, affecting childhood obesity rates, mental health and environmental health.

“You walk around, you see a lot of overweight kids,” said Van Nostrand. “Getting exercise and fresh air is good for mental health. It’s good for physical health.”

Although Colorado’s adult population is among the fittest in the nation, Colorado ranks 23rd for childhood obesity. In addition, despite recommendations that children ages 6 to 17 get an hour of physical activity a day, only 49 percent of Colorado children ages 5 to 14 reached that threshold, according to 2011 data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that walking or biking to school does make a difference. That study, which quantified how many minutes of physical activity various policy or built environment changes represent, found that active commuting to school added 16 minutes to a child’s day. Of the nine interventions reviewed, the three most effective were daily physical education classes, classroom activity breaks, and walking or biking to school.

A different Denver experience

At Bill Roberts School, a pre-K-8 school in Stapleton, the student population and the neighborhood is a lot different than West Colfax, but until recently, the problem was the same. Although about two-thirds of the school’s nearly 800 students lived within a mile of the school and sidewalks are wide and ubiquitous, not many kids were walking or biking to school.

In 2010, parent Kristen Klaassen decided to do something about it. She’d heard about an innovative Boulder-based program called Boltage while listening to NPR and soon began raising money to implement it at Bill Roberts. The program’s key technology is a $5,000 solar-powered machine called the “Zap” that’s erected outside a school and, with the help of backpack tags containing computer chips, records which students walk or bike to school each day. Students earn prizes like shoelaces and wristbands as they rack up more trips.

Boltage launched at Bill Roberts in April 2011 and today records about 60 trips a day. That number is down in recent months partly because of bad weather and partly because Klaassen hasn’t been as active about advertising it. Last year, the number of daily trips was about 80.

“It definitely has made an impact,” she said, adding that she’d like to see it attract even more kids. “It just reminds me that to change attitudes and expectations, you have to be on them all the time.”

In contrast to Melissa Walker’s experience at Colfax, Klaassen enjoyed widespread support as she spearheaded Boltage, from the school’s administration, its Green Team and from many parents and teachers.

But Berman, of Bicycle Colorado, said she empathizes with Walker’s struggles. “It’s an uphill battle,” she said.

Despite the overall success of the program at Bill Roberts, Berman said Boltage is too expensive for many schools, particularly the high-priority schools being targeted by the new grant. She noted that a similar but lower-tech trip-tracking tool is available for free through a new program called “Fire Up Your Feet,” sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and the National PTA.

The program, which can be used as a fund-raising tool, allows students to earn prizes by keeping track of pedestrian trips to and from school as well as physical activity during the school day on the program’s website.

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