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One More Push Can Preserve Federal Safe Routes to School Funding

Photo: TreeHugger

This week, the Safe Routes to School National Conference convenes in Minneapolis, a progressive city determined to become the most bicycle friendly in the nation. But even here, far from the nation’s capital, in a region celebrated for its massive greenway system, drama inside the Beltway has instilled an air of urgency to the event.

In 2005, SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act) created the federal Safe Routes to School program to get more kids to bike and walk to school by improving infrastructure and creating encouragement programs that make those active trips safe and appealing. The funding for the program is but a tiny drop in the mammoth transportation budget — a mere 0.25 percent of federal transportation spending. But those dollars have been a crucial foundation in building a wide and growing movement.

Deb Hubsmith, director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Photo: Carolyn Szczepanski

As is the case for so many progressive programs, though, there’s a very real threat that the well of dedicated dollars for Safe Routes to School could dry up in the next transportation bill. That was apparent from the opening moments of the biennial gathering.

Deb Hubsmith, the director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and a key player in developing and advancing “Safe Routes” nationwide, appealed to a huge crowd of more than 600 participants for three things: courage, faith and immediate action.

“As you know, we have some challenges,” she said. “Some people might be discouraged by what they’ve heard about Congress and the federal debt. The transportation bill is up for reauthorization and there’s fighting about what will happen with the future. Some say Safe Routes to School is not a federal priority.”

“In the face of this discussion right now, we need to have courage,” she added. “We need to know that some of the best outcomes come from challenges in front of us. When something is at risk it creates an opportunity; do we want to go backwards or have a future with healthy kids and healthy communities.”

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One Hundred 15 MPH School Zones Approved at SFMTA Hearing

Kids cross Monterey Boulevard on Walk to School Day last year. Flickr photo: Adrienne Johnson

Roughly half of the more than 200 schools proposed to have speed limits reduced to 15 MPH on surrounding streets were quickly approved at an SFMTA hearing today. The rest are expected to be approved at another hearing in three weeks before heading to the full SFMTA Board of Directors for final approval.

“We think this is an excellent way to make areas all over our city safer for kids, for seniors, and for everyone who has to walk around to meet their daily needs,” said Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe.

SFMTA Associate Engineer Maurice Growney said up to one hundred 15 mph school zones could be in place by the end of the year, and all 211 implemented by the end of 2012. Staff will aim to distribute the zones evenly around the city as they go in, he said. Funding for the program was approved by the SF County Transportation Authority on Tuesday.

“It’s a step in the right direction towards creating a better city where people have the options [to walk and bike to school] and feel safe and comfortable doing so,” said Neal Patel of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

The approved zones are expected to go before the SFMTA Board of Directors at a meeting later this month.


SFMTA: 15 MPH School Zones Could Be Implemented Within the Year

Flickr photo: Lynn Friedman

Many streets could become safer for children walking and biking to school with a project in the works to lower speed limits within school zones to 15 mph. New signs warning drivers could be in the ground as early as this winter, according to an SFMTA staff report [pdf], granted the funds are approved next month by the SF County Transportation Authority.

“It’s a very important item because it’s very visible and we think it will have a measurable impact on school safety and it can be done fairly quickly,” SFMTA Sustainable Streets Director Bond Yee told the Board of Directors yesterday.

About 200 schools have already been identified by staff as potentially eligible within the criteria of the California vehicle code, the report states. The project was mandated in an Executive Directive issued by former Mayor Gavin Newsom last December and has been urged by advocates and city officials.

“I know there’s a lot of thought from the supervisors and the public that we’re not doing enough,” said Director Cheryl Brinkman.

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Promoting Health and Physical Activity Among Children on Walk to School Day

Children walk to Sunnyside School, one of the 15 Safe Routes to School facilities. Photo: Adrienne Johnson.

Children walk to Sunnyside Elementary School, one of the 15 San Francisco schools that are part of the city's Safe Routes to School program. Photo: Adrienne Johnson.

With childhood obesity a growing national epidemic, it is surprising that more parents don’t walk to school with their kids or organize amongst neighbors to encourage physical activity as part of the daily routine. Though San Francisco has extensive public transit and is quite walkable, the current school assignment policy results in longer school commutes, a problem city officials and advocates for increased walking blame in part for children not getting enough daily exercise.

Coinciding with yesterday’s International Walk to School Day, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the Department of Public Health (SFDPH) discussed a study they have undertaken to collect baseline data on school commute patterns in an effort to encourage more walking. This initiative is especially important now, say officials, because the city will change the way it assigns children to schools starting in fall 2011 and they will have the opportunity to measure the impact local assignments will have on travel choice.

Officials plan to collect data at the fifteen schools participating in the Safe Routes to School program, as well as others that are not, and they hope the resulting information will demonstrate how effective improved traffic engineering, enforcement and eduction can be.

Ana Validzic, a SFDPH pedestrian safety coordinator, was at Fairmount Elementary School in Noe Valley yesterday to raise awareness for Walk to School Day. Fairmount and nine other schools were added to the city’s Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program this year, in addition to the five from last year. These schools are at the top of the city’s priority list for traffic calming treatments and better enforcement of traffic safety violations.

“One of the biggest obstacles right now is the way students are assigned to their schools,” said Validzic. With the change in the SFUSD assignment policy, she said, children will live much closer to their schools and parents won’t have as much of an impetus to drive. “It’s going to make programs like Safe Routes to School much more realistic.”

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The Nowtopian 7 Comments

Technology and Impotence

oil_spill_may_17_nasa.jpgNASA satellite image of Gulf oil spill, May 17, 2010.

The BP oil spill goes on. And on. We watch the oil on live web cam pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. And we watch. Political rage is muted, practical responses even more distant. What to do? How do we “take action” on something like this? How can individuals meaningfully respond to this catastrophe? Stop driving? Boycott one brand of gas? Stop buying things made of plastic? Let’s not flatter ourselves. A few folks I know are planning to go to a local ARCO gas station (owned by BP) to protest, which will surely be a big moment for the minimum wage employee in the cash booth, and probably an irritant to the half dozen or more motorists waiting to fill their cars.

The numbing impotence we feel is painfully calibrated to our inability to affect what’s happening. Consumer choices we might make will have zero impact on this disaster, and can’t shape the larger dynamics of a globe-spanning, multinational oil industry either. Just listen to Democracy Now on Friday morning to hear how Chevron has destroyed thousands of square miles of the Nigerian delta in its incessant exploitation of the oil there, or how the Ecuadoran Amazon too is covered in vast lakes of spilled oil.

The deeper questions about technology and science are far from our daily lives. The world we live in is embedded in complex networks of technological dependencies, which none of us have chosen freely. Nor do any of us have any way to participate directly in deciding what technologies we will use, how they will be deployed, what kind of social controls will be exerted over private interests who organize and run them for their own gain, etc. (supposedly the federal government regulates them in the public interest, but that is clearly false as shown YET AGAIN by this disaster). The basic direction of science is considered a product of objective research and development, when it has always been skewed to serve the interests of those who already have economic and political power. Public, democratic direction for science and technology is not only non-existent, we really don’t even discuss it as a possibility!



Portland’s Greenstreets Program a Sterling Best Practice Model

42nd_Belmont_small.jpgA typical greenstreet facility in Portland, Oregon. This one compines a stormwater treatment facility with a bulbout to reduce pedestrian crossing distances. Photos: Portland BES.
When Streetsblog San Francisco took part in the Congress for the New Urbanism's Project for Transportation Reform in Portland last week, city planners and transportation engineers treated participants to numerous tours of innovative network solutions that city has embraced, including its greenstreets program for stormwater treatment on street rights-of-way. With nearly five hundred greenstreet facilities already in the ground, Portland has plans to add another five hundred in the next five years, greatly reducing the burden stormwater can place on its sanitation system.

Portland's greenstreet facilities often take up multiple on-street parking stalls and replace the asphalt with beds planted in native species that help absorb significant volumes of streetlevel wastewater, near 100 percent in some locations. Facilities include swales, curb extensions, planters, and infiltration basins, and are typically linear and pool 6 to 9 inches deep [PDF].

David Elkin, a Landscape Architect working for Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), explained on the tour that the first experiments with greenstreet facilities in Portland were necessitated because the city had to meet mandates in a Clean Water Act lawsuit for polluting the Willamette River, which flows through Portland. The city faced the challenge of increasing the number drainage pipes in east Portland, at a cost of $150 million, or develop another solution for reducing "upstream" water volumes, those that came from surface streets. By adding the greenstreet facility network, which initially cost $11 million, the city met its target stormwater capture and estimated that it saved $60 million in pipe replacement costs.

"We can talk about all the multiple benefits that greenstreet facilities provide, but the bottom line is it saves taxpayers dollars," said Elkin, noting that the first on-street facility was installed in 2002. "Instead of just a patch or trench in somebody's street, we're going to leave behind a green, vegetated facility."



Streetfilms: Walk to School Day in San Francisco

A generation ago, nearly half of all U.S. kids walked or bicycled to school. Today, less than fifteen percent do, with the majority arriving at school in private automobiles. It’s no coincidence, then, that studies show more than a quarter of San Francisco’s children are overweight. But a new program hopes to change that trend, while reducing greenhouse gas pollution and increasing fun.

With the help of a $500,000 grant from the federal government, San Francisco has launched its own “Safe Routes to Schools” program, aimed at encouraging students and parents to walk or bike to school.

At Longfellow Elementary last Wednesday, October 7th, students joined parents on a “walking school bus.” Although the date was part of International Walk to School Day, organizers plan group walks to school every Wednesday—with the ultimate goal of walking to school every day.

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Longfellow Elementary Students Celebrate Walk to School Day

DSCN5295.jpgLongfellow Elementary students make signs celebrating Walk to School Day. Photo: Jason Serafino-Agar
At an early morning rally before school started today, students from San Francisco's Longfellow Elementary School in the Excelsior district gathered to celebrate Walk to School Day and the launch of the Safe Routes to School program.

While the adults present may have been excited about the policy details - a $500,000 grant for five schools this year, 15 schools next year, and an opportunity to make strides in encouraging walking and biking to school - the children got the message loud and clear that walking, especially with hordes of peers, is fun business.

Warming up with a call-and-response cheer of "Longfellow: WALKS!", students welcomed guest speakers to the celebration, including Jacquie Chavez, co-founder of Walk to Win Wednesdays and mother of a first-grader at Longfellow.

"Remember, it's good for you, it's good for your community, it's good for the planet. Get out and walk to school," said Chavez. "It's actually pretty fun. I do it every day, not just on Wednesdays." Chavez organizes a similar walk every Wednesday: "I hope see you out there too," she told the crowd.


SFUSD Will Launch Safe Routes to School on Walk to School Day Tomorrow

2007.02.jpgWalk to School Day 2007. Photo: SF Walk to School Day
Walking to school may seem like an unfortunate casualty of the San Francisco Unified School District's school assignment system, which aims to desegregate schools by prioritizing diversity over proximity when placing students. But as the school district launches its Safe Routes to School program tomorrow in conjunction with Walk to School Day, there is hope that schools could significantly increase walking and bicycling to and from school even with the dispersed student bodies most schools have.

Compared to other areas, like Marin County, where the Safe Routes to Schools program originated in 2000, San Francisco has unique challenges, said Ana Validzic, who coordinates the Safe Routes to School program for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "We're much more urban and we're very diverse, and one of the things that people struggle with is the school assignment system," said Validzic. "When they hear about the school assignment system, they sort of just shut down and think that we cannot promote walking and biking because children may not be assigned to a school within walking distance."

While San Francisco doesn't have neighborhood schools designed to draw primarily from within a mile or two radius, most of its schools still do have a significant percentage of students who live nearby. Walking or biking might not work for everyone, but "it's reasonable to ask at least some students to walk and bike," said Validzic.

The five San Francisco schools participating in the Safe Routes to School program this year - Bryant in the Mission District, George Washington Carver in Bayview, Longfellow in the Excelsior, Sunnyside, and Sunset - were chosen because each has a majority of students who live within a mile from school.

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Back-to-School Season Brings Bike-to-School Bans

As schools across the country open their doors for another year, Robert Ping of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership says students are increasingly facing "bans" against walking and biking to campus. Network member reports:

229710.jpgIn Portland, fears of liability turned Safe Routes to School to "Safer Routes." Photo:
"It’s pervasive throughout the country and we’re hearing about it more and more,” [Ping] said. The problem, according to Ping, is that many school principals and administrators feel that biking and walking to school is simply unsafe. They are concerned about being held liable for anything that happens during the trip to and/or from school.

In addition to studying the current scope of the problem, the Safe Routes National Partnership is putting together a team of legal experts who will craft a legal statement directed at school principals, outlining why improving biking and walking options will not increase their liability exposure. They hope the legal statement will also help allay the fears that lead to bike ban policies in the first place.

Though, as Ping points out, principals can't actually stop students from walking and biking, they can use their influence to discourage it. Administrators can also deny students a decent place to store their bikes during the school day. But if the issue is safety and liability, what about those high school parking lots?

Ping said one safe routes advocate he heard from countered a bike ban in their community by asking the principal whether or not he felt liable for kids who drive to school. “That’s a great way to push back on this idea.”

In a somewhat related post featured on the Network today, Car Free With Kids sings the praises of raising a toddler on transit. Also: The Overhead Wire notes light rail progress in Houston, while Streetsblog LA finds controversy over one Metro rail line; Gateway Streets maps "desire paths" in St. Louis's Forest Park; and NY Examiner analyzes another case of motorist-on-cyclist violence, this time in Staten Island.