There’s a growing awareness nationwide that encouraging kids to walk and bike to school may pay off in several ways. Besides all the Norman Rockwellesque feelings the idea engenders, potential benefits include increased physical activity for youth and reduced traffic congestion.
Walking to school is one viable solution to the childhood obesity epidemic, but it takes a village to implement a successful walk to school program, says Amy Eyler, Ph.D., an instructor at Saint Louis University School of Public Health. “In order to have a successful program, there has to be support from everyone – not just the schools,” Eyler said. “It has to be a community effort with involvement from public safety offices, the community and city planners, too.”
– From Health News Digest
Speaking of community effort, Minnesota’s own Congressman James Oberstar has been instrumental in implementing the national Safe Routes to School program.
At the local level, the Northfield school district provides bus transportation for school-age children who live more than one mile from their school. (It may be less for elementary-age children; I’m writing this from memory and am not verifying the information). How feasible is it to promote more walking and biking to school in Northfield, at least for middle- and high-school students? I understand that there are schedule requirements, e.g. extracurriculars both before and after school, that may influence the decisions made by many students and families, but even taking that into consideration, I think we as a community could do a lot more to encourage walking and biking to school.
(Heck, I’d appreciate anything that got more middle-schoolers to take the bus. The one time I had to drive my daughter to the middle school for regular school start time this year, there was an absolutely ridiculous bottleneck on 246/ South Division that made me wonder why it seemed that half the cars in Northfield were lining up to drop their kids at the middle school. They can’t ALL be as disorganized as I am, can they? But I digress.)
Obviously the location of the NMS and NHS campuses on the south side of town makes it impractical for many of the kids who live in the northwest part of town to walk or bike, but there’s a significant part of Northfield’s population that is within a mile or two of the schools. My middle daughter, who’s a senior at the high school this year, frequently walks home from school, and during the summer session often rode her bike. My youngest daughter hasn’t caught the vision yet, but I’m working on that.
What has been your (or your children’s) experience with walking or biking to school? Is this something we should encourage more of? What’s the best way to go about it? Does it require specific changes by the school district, the city, or any other entity?
I walk EVERYWHERE. This is both a good and bad thing; good while I get in a lot of exercise, really only during nice weather though, bad since I STILL don’t have a license… Which is quite a hindrance to my family and friends who have to haul me around everywhere that isn’t within Northfield’s parameters. Now that I’m headed off to college next fall (yesssss), I really don’t see a reason in getting a license, being that I’ll either be going to school in Minneapolis or staying in Northfield…
But, yeah, I walk. Especially to school, I literally live on the high school tennis courts. The only times I have gotten a ride was when it was a) pouring rain, b) generally awful weather or c) had something big/heavy to carry to the high school, such as a fancy cake for my German class.
We have national walk-to-school week, but I don’t know if that changes anyones outlook or if they even know it happens.
I think safety is the biggest problem. Lack of sidewalks. When we lived on the north side of town, we were within the .9 mile the district will bus. Our walk to Greenvale had one block with a sidewalk, the rest was in the street dodging traffic.
Sibley neighborhood lacks sidewalks in many areas. Only one side of Maple has them and some of the side streets have none. Saw two kids crossing Woodley today, no sidewalks, let them dodge traffic. Woodley is lightly travelled.(sorry for the sarcasm, but the city council voted against sidewalks in this area because residents did not want to shovel)
Bridgewater has sidewalks on Jefferson pkwy, but the neighborhood behind the school has no sidewalks.
The intersection of 246 and Jefferson is an accident waiting to happen. Too many people trying to get the through the stop sign too quickly. the speed limit is way too fast and too many drivers prefer to talk on the phone rather than drive well.
I would have to agree. Sidewalks are truly the limiting factor, as well as safe paths.
I live just south of Woodley and Prairie. That intersection is of great concern, as my family crosses that intersection on foot several times per day. I cannot wait until an effective, safe pedestrian crossing is implemented there.
My son continues to walk or bikes to Sibley, but is escorted. The crossings on Maple are still of concern, even though they are clearly marked and manned with crossing guards. It is mainly inattentive drivers flying down Maple, then coming into the school zone.
246/Division goes without saying. That whole situation out there needs serious improvement.
When I was out at the Safe Routes to School presentation on Oct 3, I rode my bike. I wore a helmet, safety vest, and was lit up like a Christmas float with safety lights.
The intersection is very dark. The path(s) are very very dark. If one uses the “shorter” paved path through the field between Bridgewater and the MS, you do so at your own risk. That evening, I had 2 headlights on, and I still could not see the path.
Safe routes are not just about traffic safety. We need to look at routes, lighting, safe harbors, safe crossings, and a viable grid of pedestrian systems so folks can get from point A to point B.
From looking at the overhead maps and photos, the city has some wonderful chances to connect various areas in town, especially on the south side. There is public land available that is prime for paths that will lead from East of Woodley and Prairie to Jefferson and Prairie, down south of the soccer fields, on the south edge of town, across to the middle school.
I have always wondered if a culvert or something could be placed on 246, so that folks could go under the road. I know that brings up safety issues, but if there was some way to keep the trolls out of the tunnel, it could be a safe method of crossing east/west on 246.
It seems that every solution has risks and benefits. Its about finding the one with the least risk. There has to be better ways to do this. Its all about everyone brainstorming ideas, and solving this issue.
John, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but a tunnel under 246 is a pretty drastic measure for an intersection that is busy only a half hour or so a day, and only when school is in session. The rest of the time there is not enough traffic to come close to justifying a light. In fact, I live out there and a light would be a nuisance and couldn’t be justified based on traffic counts.
And let’s remember, 95 percent of the drivers during that period are parents, so these are people who are not watching out for their own kids. It’s also clear that the traffic could be eased if the parents walked their kids or carpooled so you didn’t have one kid per car.
I was stationed at the intersection during Safe Routes to School Day, and the intersection is dangerous when kids don’t look before darting out. I think parents can do a lot by simply teaching their children how to use an intersection carefully. After all, kids in larger communities cross busier streets every day without incident.
A four-way stop actually is safer than a light. At a four-way stop, all cars come to a complete halt. With a light, cars from two directions would be flying through the intersection without even slowing down. And people trying to beat a yellow light would be very dangerous.
I do think there’s a problem in front of the school. There is no posted school zone and crosswalk. A blinking light, electronic speed monitoring sign and a posted school zone could make that situation much better.
We live on the southside of town, and our two middle schoolers bike or ride the bus. They are rewarded (?) by rides on Friday morning, first to the NMS and then to ARTech. I am most concerned by the ARTech trip, for our attending son has to pedal north to Seventh Street, under the highway and then back south to ARTech, where he shares the road with trucks, etc. That one HATES the bus. But not more than I refuse to drive.
I inform my children that I when I attended elementary school, we walked twice because we all went home for lunch. This, a mere generation ago! They barely believe me.
Maybe we could offer all walking/biking town children a cup of hot chocolate (or something similar) when they arrive at school, to encourage and recognize their “sacrifice.” Or better yet, an extra ten minutes at recess.
I find our priorities skewed to favor cars over people–and how ridiculous is that?!! We are a silly group of animals.
There is one other issue that folks have not mentioned that has seriously hindered walking/biking by my children: early school start times, especially at the high school and middle school. The high school begins classes at 7:51 a.m. Today, I dropped my daughter off at 7 for a choir rehearsal. Teenagers are just not wired to be up that early, and there is plenty of research to back it up. So, they stall getting out of bed, and before you know it, you’re driving everyday. I know there are other issues that drive (so to speak) when school’s start: bus schedules, after-school activities, etc., but start time is part of the equation.
Like Tracy, I have a daughter at the Middle School and try to avoid driving her to school at all costs to avoid the long line of cars snaking in and out of the driveway. My fantasy is to put a toll booth at the entrance to raise funds for improving the pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure and/or deterring all those 1 car-1 student trips.
But beyond fantasy, I’m a member of the Nonmotorized Transportation Task Force and so I’ve been involved and support the Safe Routes to School grant that was just submitted–you can read about the grant in the City Council packet:
I agree that continuous sidewalks are needed and there are several problem intersections which need attention. But I also believe that PARENTS must educate and train their children to be safe walkers and cyclists. I’m perfectly happy to let my daughter bicycle from our home near the old middle school to the new middle school (she rode to Sibley from 3rd grade on). She usually takes the bus because with sports equipment or a few of those absurdly heavy textbooks in her backpack the burden is a bit much to ride (and baskets and panniers on the bike are not cool).
In elementary school and middle school, we rode with her initially and planned routes, noted how long it took, and talked about safety and intersections, turn signals, stop signs and all those other driver safety habits. At 12, she’s cleared to ride wherever she wants in Northfield. Our motto: you have legs, use them.
But I have a question for the LG readers. I think bicycles are vehicles and belong on the road (even the young ones) – drivers and riders need to behave accordingly. Yet, I find that drivers are confused by whether bikes are big pedestrians or small vehicles and some people seem to equate safety with “away from cars.” Is there a coalescence of opinion on these ideas?
Oh, and an answer to one of Tracy’s questions: PARENTS need to insist on walking and bicycling. This means we have to walk/bike too as well as saying “NO I will not drive you to school” and repeating it every morning) and simultaneously lobby elected officials (school, city, state and federal) for planning and FUNDING the infrastructure to support it (and be willing to have our taxes go up).
A small irony – bicycle technology has improved tremendously since my 1960s/70s school experience with suspension forks, great tires, better lights…yet we use them less for transportation.
In Dundas we are acutely aware of the difficulties in walking to schools. It is totally impractical for student in the west parts of Dundas to even think about biking or walking because they would find Hwy 3 an impossible barrier.
Even the kids in Bridgewater Heights would be ill-advised to try and cross CSAH 1 since we could not get the county to lower the crown of the hill, put in a stoplight or provide any other options. When we raised the idea of a culvert (ala John Thomas’s idea for 246) we were told that the combination of trolls and general sense of being in a cave made such methods unsuccessful. As for overpasses, I wanted CSAH lowered by about 30-40 feet so that an overpass would feel like it was “at grade” to pedestrians and bicyclists, but that solution costs too much for the city to take it on, the county is uncooperative and broke and the developer (Bridgewater Heights) is back-pedaling as fast as they can on ANY costly niceties.
While I was lukewarmly supportive of the Safe Routes to Schools grant proposal ($50,000 for ANOTHER study) I guess that money is the price we pay to find out that we cannot afford the $250K-500K that an overpass costs at either 246/Jefferson or across CSAH1. And the thought that Northfield (which has to be one of the wealthy outstate cities) would expect the state to rob St. Peter (and other locations) to pay for amenities needed by Northfield is a little disconcerting. Though I guess when you can lose several million dollars to fraud, the thought of spending another half-mill for safety may be unreasonable (sorry), especially when the biggest worry appears to be about prayers in city hall (304 posts last time I looked).
All of this comes together in a perfect storm that leads me to conclude that we should stop building large central facilities and start farming out to smaller neighborhood schools again. Any economies of scale that a large building gives is more than lost in the cost to our society in terms of ethos in the school, the disastrous effects of anonymity on civility and the costs of shipping kids like cattle to a central processing plant. Once we get out of the bigger is better mind-set, then Safe-Routes-to-Schools are both natural and cheap.
Bruce W. Morlan
Dundas Planning Commission
Bruce Morlan signed his post with his title: Chair of the Dundas Planning Commission…well, I was the chair of the Northfield Planning Commission when the new Middle School was approved. The Planning Commission at that time was very concerned about all the issues which have become big issues – the 246/Jefferson intersection, crossing 246, access from the “Presidential” area to the west, and more.
Why did the school happen, then? Perhaps this is an object lesson in how city and school district did not work together effectively. School district identified what it wanted in a school (space for athletic fields, square footage requirements for classrooms) and purchased land, planned school. The school building is lovely and everyone was excited about the space and newness compared with the old cramped school by Central Park. Space for sports, space for cars, space for teaching…objections about traffic and pedestrian access were never seriously considered by decision makers because it was too late to derail this state of the art school. Could the City Council have (politically) rejected such a facility in this town where education is valued? Of course we didn’t even think about Dundas, Bruce (or any other non-Northfield areas which are part of the school district).
As an aside, I’d suggest parallels to current library expansion discussion. The school district determined it could not expand on the old school site because of what middle school space planning experts indicated was needed. The library is asking whether it can expand on its current site given the space needs its consultants have identified. How will the library resolve its space/place needs?
As for the SR2S grant. Yes, it’s for more planning. The Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force is hoping/planning (the TF is only authorized for 1 year and the federal grant funding is not unlimited in time or amount) that this planning grant will gather evidence which will lead to an infrastructure grant to fix problem areas.
Mary is right about the school start time being too early. First hour at the high school starts at 7:51 a.m. Research has shown that melatonin levels (melatonin is the hormone that promotes sleep) remain high in teenagers longer in the morning than they do for younger children and adults; teenagers are biologically programmed to sleep in. See this article in the Washington Post, which mentions the later start at Edina High School.
I walked (or rode my bike) over a mile to school when I was in high school, but our school day didn’t start until 8:35 a.m.
Betsey wrote “Why did the school happen, then? Perhaps this is an object lesson in how city and school district did not work together effectively.”
Wow, substitute “county” for “school district” and you can begin to see why CSAH#1 is such a hazard at the entrance to Bridgewater Heights (mea culpa). Planning commissions can point out these things, but if the political climate is driven by the shiny chrome, pretty whitewalls and marketing razzle-dazzle it is nearly impossible to be heard when you try to shout “what about the mileage on that hog?”. I think that we (planners) need a new paradigm for how to handle the high-energy scheming of dreamers who don’t think about the whole picture.
It should be obvious by the comments from two very thoughtful planning commission chairs, that the legislative body which they advise does NOT weigh that advice with the proper consideration. And since it is two different gov’t units, I feel free to state that it is a common problem ,in this arena, to have the citizens struggle to get good people on their Boards and Commissions, and then have their good advice, thoughtfully considered and delivered, for the most part IGNORED.
Why do we bother to have citizen advisory groups, who the “powers that be” then ignore? Part of the problem is that when situations like that develop, the rest of the citizenry may, or may not, come and speak their support to the legislative body, but it is so difficult to be taken seriously, much less prevail.
Look at the whole Woodley St. debacle. I understand that the staff responsible for the project may be in a bind when the criticism/ evaluation comes “too late” in the process. Well then, let’s get the resident input into the mix earlier, all the time. What values does the community want to see in a school or city project? How then can the city or school district accomplish a satisfactory project, within/close to budget, which fulfills the citizens vision for the amenity/necessity which their tax dollars will pay for?
The thing that frustrates me most about our government today, local, state or federal, is that the “of”, “by”, and “for the people” part is just too too messy to be bothered with by even many elected officials.
other secondary thoughts: why can’t there be a serious discussion of later starting times for schools?
Why couldn’t there be a stoplight at 246 and Jeff that is timed/operational for the peak traffic periods?
Well, many of the decisions that were made regarding the CSAH1 problem were cut off at the knees by a body of government far removed from the local sphere. The county owns that road and we were not allowed to forget that. I was very appreciative of the hard work the Dundas city staff and engineer put into that project, but the county was not listening, or at least not willing to listen. Why do you think that Bridgewater township has declared independence from that far-off (at least in responsiveness) political powerhouse by undertaking their own planning?
I’m confused. I thought the priority was a stoplight on Hwy 3 to get people across between the two lights already there. And now it’s a priority to have a stoplight that would be needed 15 minutes each morning and 15 minutes each afternoon 180 days a year. And what happens the first time a child steps off the curb just as a car misses the timing on a yellow light and knocks him 50 feet down the road? At least now, with a car coming from a dead stop, there’s little danger of more than a bump or bruise. Are there any statistics from the police department that indicates which intersection is more dangerous, or that a light would improve the situation?
I agree with Betsey that parents need to take responsibility for teaching their children to walk, ride bikes and drive — and to drive safely around the schools. And I think the stoplights should be put into the discussion with trail and sidewalk improvements to create a citywide priority list that can be presented to city officials.
I appreciate this good exchange of ideas on walking and biking to school, as well as the planning efforts of people such as Tracy Davis, Betsey Buckheit, and Bruce Morlan. The Northfield walk zones are 3/4 mile for k-5, 1 mile for 6-12, but some kids are bused within those zones – for example, when they would have to cross unsafe roads to get to school. State law requires busing to be offered to kids who live two or more miles from school.
As chair of the Task Force on Nonmotorized Transportation I coordinated our Safe Routes to School grant application. I first want to say that IF we got the grant (a big if), it would support more than planning. Here’s an excerpt from my blog entry on the grant proposal that explains more:
When we spoke to Officer Thad Monroe of the police department, we came up with proposals to improve pedestrian and bike safety for kids. One idea would be for Thad and others to be trained as Bike League Certified Instructors, a formal training program. Other things the grant would fund: speed wagons and additional police enforcement occasionally to reduce speeds; “walking schoolbuses” programs; driver education; student and parent education on the benefits of walking and biking; incentive programs; evaluation of participation (traffic counts and surveys).
The planning/engineering analysis of safe routes would be preliminary to seeking infrastructure grants of up to $175,000 per year. The school district and city did not seem confident enough about specific solutions and plans to seek one of those grants.
Wayzata School District, where I spent all my K-12 years, received a $50,000 non-infrastructure grant last year and has hired an engineering firm, SRF Consulting, with experience on school and SRTS projects. We chose to go for $30,000 b/c we are a much smaller school district.
Even if we don’t get the grant, I hope some of the things we’ve planned for will happen.
Here is my idea for a crossing of 246 to the Middle School south of Jeff. Pkwy (note I’m definitely not a traffic engineer): have a “mid-block” crossing (safer b/c it’s free of car turning movements) with striped pavement and traffic signal that could be manually operated by pedestrians/cyclists, PLUS a crossing guard during school start and close. Also have a lower speed limit than 55 mph going south.
I recently spoke to my dad about his experience walking to and from school as a kid. He grew up in the 40s and 50s in south Minneapolis. For elementary school he walked to and from school 1 block (also going home for lunch). He also served on the school “Safety Patrol.” For high school he made a two-mile walk.
One thing I’ve noticed about kids who walk and bike to Greenvale here in Northfield: they have FUN, and they’re tough! One rather cold morning (about 25 degrees) I was biking my daughter to the Montessori School and two hardy Minnesota kids on bikes whizzed towards school, seemingly carefree. Another kid even rode a recumbent bike!
I’d agree that a lot of this problem has to do with infrastructure issues, especially the lack of sidewalks on Woodley and the ridiculous 55 mph speed limit on South Division by NMS. But I think the larger issue is that kids don’t want to walk and their parents don’t seem to want it either.
I think the first thing to do is to get kids within reasonable walking distance (I’d say two miles or less) to walk. As Tracy points out in her article, there are a huge number of people who live near the three contiguous school campuses on South Division. Why not formally request that parents not routinely drive their kids? Or how about raising the fee for a parking pass at the high school — I could be wrong, but I think it’s around $50 now; $150-$200 seems more reasonable unless you live 5+ miles away.
Your Post #8….the most common sense I have heard in along time. Keep it up mate. I am sure that you will find a crack along the divide somewhere. Perhaps you could help out the Northfield DT folks with a bit of diplomacy.
I want to start by saying that I like to walk from my home to downtown Northfield often. Although the title of this blog is regarding kids walking/biking to schools, I think that some of this isn’t just about schools, but about the safety of walking and biking in Northfield in general. I don’t like to walk at night because I’ve been followed several times, therefore I walk in a group or only during the day. Here are a few questions for you though. Does anyone remember a few years ago when a boy was hit and killed near the corner of Jefferson and Hwy 3 by a high schooler when they were both going home from school (there are still a cross and flowers there)? Or how about a few years earlier when a well-known woman was out biking on Woodley and was hit and killed by a local man? Haven’t we had several joggers lose limbs? I seem to recall something about one or two who were cross country runners. Additionally, I also personally know several people who have had accidents on the bike trail when coming around a bend and smashing head-on into another biker. I’m not trying to be morbid, but I think that if we really want to encourage everyone to get out there, we really need to make sure everyone is safe.
(one of the many ‘forwarded emails’…nb)
Norman, your post is funny and true! Thanks to your brother for forwarding it.
We all know times are different now. My children grew up in the country and had to ride a bus. If I had lived in town when my children went to school I would have been more concerned about their safety from other people than from cars, lack of sidewalks, distance… Do others fear that “strangers” is a big issue as to why parents drive their children to school?
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