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Safer Routes for Arlington’s Students

Arlington Public Schools’ recent changes to its transportation plan should refocus everyone on ensuring and demonstrating that students have safe routes to schools.

Arlington Public Schools recently announced changes to its student transportation plan that appeared to be aimed at reducing the number of students on its bus fleet.

This means that more students will be expected to ride a bike or walk to school. This isn’t just a reasonable change — it’s a desirable one. However, given the pushback from some quarters, it’s clear that Arlington can do a better job in encouraging parents and students to ride a bike or walk to school.

Under the school system's transportation plan, elementary school children who live less than a mile, and secondary school students who live less than a mile-and-a-half from their schools do not qualify for bus transportation.

Ideally, these students would then ride a bike or walk to school via safe and low-traffic routes through their own neighborhoods. The unfortunate reality is that many of these students are driven to school by parents who don’t believe that the routes are safe enough or that their children are capable of navigating on their own. 

Aside from pointing out that I and millions of other children managed to walk to school starting in kindergarten and live to tell about it, I’m not sure there’s much to be done about what parents expect of their own children. However, to the extent that parents are guided by the impression that streets are more dangerous than they used to be, Arlington Public Schools and Arlington County should consider an informational campaign demonstrating that crime is at historic lows and that children are at far more risk in an automobile than any other mode of transportation.

It really is safer to walk or ride a bike to school that being driven in a car.

The responsibilities of the school system and the county government go beyond encouragement and education, though. They also need to actively inventory and improve the infrastructure that makes for safe connections between students' neighborhoods and schools. To the extent that more schools need safe street crossings like the Jackson Street bike/pedestrian overpass of Arlington Boulevard for Thomas Jefferson Middle School, the funding and construction of those crossings should be prioritized. Smaller-scale projects might include flashing lights at crosswalks or better clearing of trails when it snows.

To be clear, Arlington County already works at improving neighborhood connections with schools, but its efforts could be expanded. It could, for example, hire a Safe Routes to School program coordinator. This would create a full-time job that focused on both improving our physical infrastructure and student/parent education related to using it safely. Surely that would be a better long-term investment than another bus.

Finally, there’s one group that could that could immediately and without cost improve the safety of students riding and walking to schools – the parents who drive their kids there.

I’m not aware of any formal studies on the matter, but you’d be hard pressed to get anyone who regularly experiences traffic near the pick-up/drop-off points of schools to disagree that the drivers there are especially dangerous. Perhaps it’s the distraction of kids in the car, their worries about getting to work on time, or the spilling of Starbucks, but I’ve rarely come across a group that seems more unaware of the other people trying to share the street with them. All it would take is just a few more seconds of patience and a bit more regard for others to dramatically improve safety directly around the schools.

In the end, there’s no reason that a place as compact and densely populated as Arlington can’t be a very safe place for its students to ride a bike and walk to school. And really, it’s a pretty good place right now. But it could be better, especially if we all take some responsiblity for it.

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Interested in more information about Arlington’s existing Safe Routes to Schools efforts? Check out this page at Walk Arlington. 

The Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership recently announced a new Greater Washington area-specific platform.   

I wasn’t kidding about cars being more dangerous to children than walking or biking. From this 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report: “Injuries due to transportation were the leading cause of death for children. The highest death rates were among occupants of motor vehicles in traffic.” Yes, walking and riding a bike both carry some danger, but it doesn’t begin to approach that posed by motor vehicles.

Mark Blacknell is a member of the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee, president of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and a League Cycling Instructor.

Paula August 13, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Too much reckless behavior by everyone who drives or rides a vehicle on our streets and roads. Too little enforcement of traffic laws by the police. Let kids ride school buses if they want to.
Elizabeth MacGregor August 13, 2012 at 09:45 PM
Thank you for raising this topic, Mark. I was working at the county fair yesterday and a mother of an elementary age student told me her son had learned bike safety in the Cub Scouts, but the school did not offer any such training (e.g., bike rodeos, etc.). She asked if there was any way the county could provide this training to elementary students through school. Could a Safe Routes to Schools Coordinator help get this going? This might increase interest and perceived safety for kids to bike to school. Liz MacGregor
Mark Blacknell August 14, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Thanks, Liz. The SRTS programming does include education, but it's not as comprehensive as I think it should be. Earlier this year I wrote a little bit about the cycling education available via APS - see http://clarendon.patch.com/articles/arlington-public-schools-cycling In short, it's only universal at the high school level. That just isn't enough. There are some pilot programs at the middle and elementary school level. As best I can tell, however, that's mostly through initiative of the school principal. Whenever I ask about how to encourage that, it's always suggested that the best route forward is through a school's PTA. I'd like something more systemic, but if one-school-at-a-time is what it takes . . .

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