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Safe Routes to School: A Targeted Approach to Our Built Environment Woes

2:15 PM EDT on September 24, 2009

bike_to_school.jpgImage courtesy of Howard Frumkin [PDF].

Last month, more than 500 people gathered in Portland, Oregon for the second National Safe Routes to School Conference. Maybe it's the fact that Congress might triple national funding for safe routes to school programs. Or maybe it’s the way that walking and biking to school fits so well with efforts to improve public health, safety, and the environment. Whatever the reason, you definitely got the feeling at this event that you were part of something that’s gaining momentum.

Livable Streets Education was among the presenters, and we learned quite a bit ourselves about the safe routes to school movement. We wanted to share with Streetsblog readers some insights that we picked up from two of the headliners at the conference.

bike_walk_stats.jpgGraphic: Richard Jackson [PDF]

First, the problems plaguing our built environment are big. We're all pretty familiar with the triple whammy of traffic violence, sedentary lifestyles, and global climate change, but sometimes it helps to get a refresher in the salient facts and figures. Richard Jackson, chair of the Environmental Health Sciences Department at UCLA, laid it out. Global average temperature is increasing at an ever higher rate. One-third of Americans live in neighborhoods without sidewalks, half without access to public transportation. Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death for every age group from 3 to 33. Meanwhile, the costs to our healthcare system from diseases related to obesity are enormous: We spend 1.5 percent of our entire GDP on treating diabetes alone.

It can all seem overwhelming. But as Jackson pointed out, there are plenty of ways to make these problems feel more manageable. As he said, it really comes down to asking yourself: "Can I walk to buy milk?"

Another keynoter, Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, elaborated on the same theme. Rather than generate fear, despair, anxiety, he said, we need to communicate the changes we must make with accuracy and balance. We don't want people to mentally check out or give up when they hear the facts -- we need constructive engagement.

That's where "Safe Routes to School" comes in: It's a solution that's easy to grasp and feels like something we are capable of achieving. We can demand sidewalks, we can set up “walking school buses” to get kids to school. These are doable steps with benefits ranging from improved cardiovascular health to reduced carbon emissions. And it will help raise a new generation to appreciate the experience of walking, biking, and meeting your neighbors.

You can learn more about how to support the Safe Routes to School movement by checking out the National Center for Safe Routes to School and the Safe Routes National Partnership. You might also want to consider asking your senator to support Senate Bill 1156, the Safe Routes to School Reauthorization Bill.

If you know of New York City teachers who want to get their classes directly involved in these issues, check out Livable Streets Education’s fall project, We’re Walking Here NYC. New York is a city of walkers, a fact that students can celebrate on Walk to School Day, coming up on October 7. Look for a post with further details next week.

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