What do International Walk to School Day on Oct. 4 and Raleigh’s transportation bond on the Oct. 10 ballot for road projects have in common? The “walk audit” I recently went on near Jeffreys Grove Elementary School should explain.
Walk audits assess how pedestrian and bike friendly a street or neighborhood is. While there are sidewalks in that North Raleigh residential neighborhood, the percentage of kids who walk to school is pretty low. Why? To get to the school, children must cross a wide road adjacent to busy Creedmoor Road, and there isn’t even a marked crosswalk. Cars turning into the school road could easily hit someone.
Maybe that’s why the school’s website provides great detail about driving children safely to school, yet doesn’t mention a word about walking or biking. Because Jeffreys Grove is a magnet, some children must take the bus or be driven. But magnet schools alone don’t explain why between 1969 and 2001, the percentage of kids driven to school in cars nationwide has increased to almost half.
Parents want their kids to get exercise to keep them healthy, prevent obesity, work off their energy, and to just let kids be kids. Why is it in this time of highly organized sports in America, this seems so hard to do? Maybe it’s because children simply don’t walk, play, and bike as freely as we adults did when we were children. All parents want their children to be safe, and many parents are worried that children walking or biking – to school, the store or a friend’s house – isn’t safe on busy streets.
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To be fair, Jeffrey’s Grove Elementary was built on fast-moving, multi-laned Creedmoor Road, designed by transportation engineers who learned the goal of a road was to move as many cars as quickly as possible. Decades and many crashes later – along with the obesity epidemic – transportation planning has moved into a new paradigm with focus more on safety, reducing crashes, reducing trip length and improving physical health.
What’s more, in the last several years, hundreds of towns and cities are adopting transportation policies directing road building to safely accommodate pedestrians, bike-riders and public transit, as well as cars. These are called “Complete Streets” policies because the concept is that streets should be designed for all modes of transportation – not just cars.
What happens when we design roads for safe walking and biking and for buses and rail? People are much more likely to get out of their cars and choose more active, enjoyable and cheaper ways to travel. Children and adults alike get more exercise. That’s one of the key reasons people who live in walkable cities like New York are healthier than in suburban towns.
Because Raleigh is working to keep up with growth, the City Council is asking residents to vote on a transportation bond that will widen and re-design many roads in the city. Because the City Council adopted a “Complete Streets” transportation policy in 2015, all of the road projects in the bond must incorporate things like sidewalks, bike lanes (some separated from cars for added safety) wherever possible and create transit access for the expanding bus system. So this “roads” bond is really about creating safer streets and better transportation options for everyone. When roads are designed for children walking and running, more kids will walk and bike to school, to a park and to a buddy’s house. These types of streets will literally build exercise and better health back into people’s lives for a lifetime.
Given that every town in Wake County is experiencing rapid growth, all municipalities should approve Complete Streets transportation policies to truly promote Walk to School Day every day. And in honor of this year’s Walk to School Day, voting for Raleigh’s transportation bond makes sense.
Karen Rindge is executive director of WakeUP Wake County.