• State awards $1M for Safe Routes to School
     | April 14,2006

    Grandparents may have lost exclusive rights to all of those dramatic "when-I-walked-to-school" yarns.

    The state Agency of Transportation announced Tuesday it plans to spend $1 million a year over the next five years on local programs designed to encourage children to walk or ride bicycles to school. The program, dubbed "Safe Routes to School," is aimed at primary and middle schools.

    Individual schools can apply for money for infrastructure improvements like sidewalks and bike paths, education programs and other programs designed to encourage students to walk or bike.

    James Tasse, director of the Rutland Area Physical Activity Coalition, said it was great news for Rutland County.

    "We're encouraging schools to apply," he said. "I know for a fact Rutland Intermediate is applying. That would be an ideal school, with kids right in the neighborhoods, we could get them walking and biking with ease."

    Aside from the obvious health benefits, Tasse said more students getting to school under their own power means less traffic congestion.

    Tasse said the beauty of the program was the way in which it is localized, with each community applying for the money determining its own needs and how best to meet them.

    In many areas, he said improving shoulders and lane painting would let parents feel safe about their children riding bicycles. Tasse said programs could also set up groups of adults who would lead walking or biking groups or shepherd students to designated pedestrian or bicycle paths.

    Tasse said the program also would have applications in the less-densely populated outlying towns.

    "It is more of a challenge in a rural area," he said. "Bicycling is the avenue we'll be exploring. It's not difficult to do two or three miles on a bike and if we can get kids in a four-mile radius to do that, that's great. Really, we're trying to get people thinking about using their bodies for transportation."

    Jon Kaplan, coordinator of the Safe Routes to School program for AOT, said the agency acknowledged up front the program would not work for every town.

    "There are certainly some rural schools that are isolated from where people live," he said.

    However, Kaplan said a pilot program started by AOT and the Chittenden County Metropolitan Planning Organization showed that the approach can work.

    "We purposefully selected schools we thought would be representative of smaller Vermont towns Hinesburg Community School and the middle school in Richmond and had some form of success with both those schools," he said.

    Kaplan said the schools instituted programs like "walking Wednesdays," in which students were encouraged to walk on particular days.

    "They were pretty well received," he said. "In Hinesburg, about 60 percent of parents indicated their kids had participated."

    In follow-up surveys, Kaplan said parents indicated that the programs made children more willing to walk and bike to school, reducing traffic around the school and even leading to better driver behavior in the surrounding neighborhoods.

    School is out during the most popular months for bicycling, but Tasse said he still thought students could bike in for most of the school year.

    "I've certainly lived in places where I've seen kids ride every month out of the year," he said. "You can certainly ride from September to Thanksgiving. When the roads are bad and slippery, you don't do it."

    Contact Gordon Dritschilo at gordon.dritschilo@rutlandherald.com.

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