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How to Jump-Start a Walking School Bus: An Interview With Ian Thomas

Ian Thomas

Ian Thomas

If you’re working to make it easier for children to walk and bike to school in your community, Ian Thomas is a name that you should know! Ian is currently serving as the Executive Director of the Pedestrian and Pedaling Network of Columbia, Missouri (PedNet). As he prepares to step down from this position to run for the Fourth Ward seat in City Council in Columbia, MO, this April, we spoke with him recently about the lessons that he learned in setting up the organization’s Walking School Bus program, a nationally-recognized Safe Routes to School success story.

Ian shared his personal goals for making active transportation a citywide priority, and shed light on how drastically people’s perceptions can change from just one generation to the next—and what those changes mean for physical infrastructure.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about the Walking School Bus Program PedNet runs in Columbia, MO, and how it has become so successful?

PedNet’s Walking School Bus program, which started in 2003 , is a component of our Safe Routes to School (SRTS) initiative [Editor's Note: you can read more about Walking School Bus creator David Engwicht here]. This started prior to federal legislation about SRTS, and at a time when there wasn’t much funding, but SRTS was a concept that was starting to catch on in Missouri. PedNet was a young organization then, focused on street design standards, or what are known now as complete streets. We wanted some encouragement programs that would get people out walking and biking as we were trying to work with the city to put in sidewalks and bike lanes, and wanted to address a couple of oft-repeated concerns that parents have about their children walking to school–mainly traffic danger and stranger danger.

If you do an analysis of those two things, you’ll find that the number of kids walking to school was about 50% in the 1960s, but now it’s more like 15%. That’s a pretty dramatic change in behavior over just one generation. One of the main differences is that there’s a lot more traffic on the roads today, and these roads are not designed with the pedestrian in mind, let alone children.

If you design a program so parents have faith in it, it is well run, and volunteers are trained, responsible, and reliable, then parents are extremely happy that their kids are walking to school because they get out and get exercise in the morning and in the afternoon. It’s more like when the parents were in school. My generation was among that 50% walking to school so it’s sort of a throwback. We developed our program in Columbia by recruiting adults, many of them college students. We designed the routes, advertised the program, got parents to sign their kids up, and took the volunteers through the walking routes to survey them. It’s become very popular in Columbia. Last school year we had about 500 kids participate.

You mentioned that prior to SRTS there wasn’t federal legislation in place to support this concept, and funding was hard to come by. What was the process of getting that legislation in place?

There were advocates at the national level, and Deb Hubsmith was really a leading light working in Washington DC with Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, the chair of the House Transportation Committee who was primarily responsible for the federal SRTS Program. Deb worked very closely with other national advocacy groups and they made a very good case for the health benefits, academic benefits, safety, and congestion benefits of Safe Routes to School. As a result, more than $600 million was provided for the program in the 2005 Federal Transportation Bill.

Most school districts don’t provide busing for kids who live less than a mile from school. Before we started the program, we did a survey in of parents that live within a one-mile radius of a randomly selected group of schools and found that of all the kids living within that radius, only about 25% of them were walking to school. We realized if we put in place a robust Walking School Bus program, we would eliminate a tremendous amount of traffic around these schools. Congestion and air pollution would be reduced as well.

We were able to present these benefits to parents, and the people and advocacy groups mentioned before were able to present them to legislators. There was broad support for the idea of allocating federal funds to promote walking to school through programs like the Walking School Bus and through engineering investments like putting in sidewalks, slowing down traffic, and adding crosswalks in school areas. The idea was that this would hopefully move us back toward 50% of kids walking to school again.

500 children participated in Columbia's Walking School Bus program last year / Photo: MoBikeFed via Flickr

500 children participated in Columbia’s Walking School Bus program last year / Photo: MoBikeFed via Flickr

Can you speak to the benefits, and in some cases the necessity of coordinating with various organizations to make these programs a success?

Certainly for SRTS, having a strong and diverse partnership of stakeholders and organizations from different sectors has been extremely important. As an independent, non-profit organization, PedNet had to reach out and partner with the school district. While we weren’t asking the school district to implement the program itself, but we wanted their support, and the support of the parents. The district has been a really important partner, and in some parts of the country school districts are heading local SRTS programs. We’re trying to achieve that in Columbia and transfer the program to the school so that they run it with our help.

Other important partners have been the Public Health Department and the University of Missouri. We’ve worked very closely with the health department for a dozen years, not just on walking to school, but on building more accessible communities, trails, and promoting bus use. The University of Missouri provides around 200 volunteers, most of which are students. We work closely with professors in the university to promote the program and they often offer students credit particularly in the health and education program.

We also work with other city departments, such as transportation and planning, to promote the targeting of infrastructure dollars toward streets around schools. Elected representatives play a big role in making those decisions as well as school board members. A diverse partnership has allowed us to promote the program widely within the community, as well as get some tangible help in the way of funding and volunteers.

How replicable are PedNet’s programs? How and where do you see them working in other cities around the US?

My colleague Robert Johnson is our Director of Consulting, and he has been promoting different kinds of workshops and trainings and technical assistance services to other communities, sharing what we’ve learned around the country. We have an all-day Walking School Bus workshop, which is designed for a single community with a group of around 15 or 20 leaders from that community. We gather teachers, parents, and city officials and take them through a six-hour training on how to establish a Walking School Bus program in their community, and give them the tools to get started. We also include the PowerPoint presentation that we use to train new volunteers. We try to give these communities a whole package so that they can get their own programs going pretty quickly.

So far, we’ve led about 70 or 80 these workshops in the last two years. I did one two weeks ago in Longmont, Colorado, and they had very good representation from across the community. I’m very confident that their program will really take off.

What are some of the new and exciting things that are going on with PedNet right now?

We’ve been running a pilot program for the last couple of years where parents that live further out (say five or ten miles from their children’s school), can still benefit from the Walking School Bus. We do this by setting up a staging post about half a mile to a mile from school where the parents and the school buses can drop kids off, and they walk under the supervision of our volunteers from that location to the school, and then back again in the afternoon. The schools have benefitted by having less traffic around, and they’ve been very supportive. The Columbia School Board is very actively looking at not just bringing the Walking School Bus under their own operation, but expanding the staging posts so that multiple schools can enjoy this benefit. This also helps to promote advocacy for physical improvements around the school so that more kids can walk.

We’ve done a lot of work with middle school kids teaching them the League of American Bicyclists Safety Program. It’s a lot more intense to run a bike to school program because there’s equipment involved, and safety concerns are greater. The kids really have to be well-trained in how to interact with traffic and the volunteers that lead the bike brigade have to be highly trained. In our program, they are all certified instructors who do a three-day training with the League of American Bicyclists. But it’s hard to grow that quickly.

Another component is teaching teenagers how to use the public transportation system, if they have access to one. We have a very underfunded bus system in Columbia, and that’s one of our policy campaigns: to increase public funding for the bus system so that it provides better options for everybody. But with teenagers, if they start learning and using the bus early, they will really enjoy the increased freedom in getting around town.

Is there one obstacle in particular that you often see causing trouble with programs that are getting started or trying to grow?

The way that rural communities and suburbs are built, often with everything very spread out, can make starting a Walking School Bus program very difficult. I don’t know that we’re ever going to see sidewalks on every rural highway, or lane, so there will always be some sectors that don’t convert to active or public transportation, where the car makes most sense, and that’s probably OK. I think that there needs to be a balance. I would like to look to Copenhagen, where approximately one-third of all journeys are taken by walking or biking, one-third by public transportation, and one-third by private car. I think that’s a really nice balance for a city to aspire to. In most American cities, it’s more like 80% private car, 10% public transportation, and 10% walking or biking.

 

Note: Ian will be stepping down as Executive Director of PedNet in January 2013, and the position will be filled by Annette Triplett, who has been working in Missouri for several years in promoting healthy food in schools.

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