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#StreetsR4Families: Walk/Bike to School Day Is Easy

5:51 PM PDT on October 27, 2014

The Walking Bus that left the parking lot at St. Andrews. Not a lot of walking. Photo: Marybeth Newton
The Walking Bus that left the parking lot at St. Andrews. Not a lot of walking. Photo: Marybeth Newton

This Walktober, a record eighty-five schools in the City of Los Angeles participated in LADOT's "Walk to School Day" Program. The total number dwarfed those of past years, as more and more schools are actively encouraging students to walk to school.

Richland Elementary School, where my son is currently enrolled in Transitional Kindergarten, was one of those new schools (although we weren't organized by October 8, the official "Walk to School Day"). We held our first "Walk/Bike to School Day" last Friday and were overwhelmed by the response.

Here's the best part: thanks to LADOT's involvement, it was really easy to program the day. I traded two emails with the principal, Mr. G., filled out a form at Walk to School Day L.A., recruited five other parents to help on the day of, and we were ready to go. LADOT brought banners, treats (donated CLIF Kids Bars), and take-home materials. They also contacted the LAPD to let them know what was going on.

When I first approached the principal, he was excited, but we did laugh that "there's literally one kid that bikes to school" at Richland. We weren't including my kid, who is dropped off on a bike, but who doesn't bike himself on most days.

The school, located in the heart of the North Westdale Community, is centrally located and has a healthy portion of students who do arrive on foot. So, we knew we had a base to work with.

But Richland also has a lot of students who arrive from outside the area. So, we came up with some plans to make our Walk/Bike to School Day a little different. The local church, which just happens to be the one I attend on (most) Sundays, allowed us to use their parking lot as a "Kiss and Walk/Bike" for anyone who wanted to participate. Since the school threw in a homework pass, there was even more incentive to participate.

Mr. G came up with the real crown jewel for the event. He led a bike tour of the campus grounds during morning recess for any kids who arrived on people-powered wheels. The kindergartners rolled in a small circle around the play structure. The older kids took advantage of the entire parcel of land. For a school where one kid bikes to school, watching nearly a hundred kids use their recess to ride with the principal was truly a sight to behold.

photo (5)
Sammy taking his bike tour with Mr. G. Photo: Damien Newton

When I walked over to the church Friday morning, I took a couple of walking bus signs with me. But, about ten minutes before the walk was scheduled to begin, there were two kids, both with parents, getting their bikes ready. Then Mr. G pulled up with his mountain bike. Then two neighborhood kids show up on Xootrs. Another mom and daughter, another pink bike. Before I knew what was happening, there were nearly two dozen kids, all with wheels. None ready to walk. Taking a cue, Marybeth ran home and grabbed our bikes and off we rode.

When we got to school, two volunteers were out front getting kids to sign a sign noting their participation. There were so many kids walking past (with and without bikes or other wheels) that it seemed that the volunteers might not be getting everyone. I know Sammy missed the banner signing, but the principal still gave him a homework pass.

In the end, after being the parent-organizer for a successful Walk/Bike to School Day, there are three lessons I learned.

First, the new website and programming by LADOT make the event easy to organize. Just pick a date in October and/or April, let them know via the website, and follow their easy instruction list.

One kid. One kids bikes to school regularly. This was one of three bike storage areas on Friday
One kid. One kid bikes to school regularly. This was one of three bike storage areas on Friday

Second, don't underestimate the latent demand for safe walking and bicycling facilities and programming. We were worried that few people would take part other than the kids that were already walking (and the one kid that was biking). In 2013, 61% of the organizers indicated that they thought their students did more physical activity on the day of their Walk to School Day event than on a typical day. I would guess that number will be higher for this year.

Last, while encouragement days are great, there is still a need for better infrastructure. Anecdotally, about half of the parents in the lot for the Bike Bus (nobody walked, so I'll stop pretending it was a walking bus) lived locally but normally wouldn't let their kid bike to school because of the crossings. Richland Elementary is nestled into the community, but has National Blvd. three blocks to the south, the I-10 just to the north, and is about halfway between Barrington and Sawtelle Boulevards. None of those are easy crossings.

To make matters worse, Richland itself has no curb cuts on the corners surrounding the school.

While the city is making strides in its Safe Routes to Schools Program, there is still a lot of work to be done. In 2013, 77% of organizers indicated that difficult intersection crossings or heavy traffic traveling at high speeds make children feel unsafe walking to school. Only 44% reported a lack of traffic safety skills as a reason that children feel unsafe.

Friday was a great start for Richland Elementary, and we plan on following up with a second Walk/Bike to School Day and Bike Rodeo in the spring. But as great a first step as it was, there are still miles to go.

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