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Charlottesville Provides Safe Routes to School

By Steve Dunham

Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star, November 14, 2004. Reproduced with permission.

The daily commute to school in Charlottesville has taken a different shape in the past three years, thanks to a group called the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation. This grassroots volunteer group was founded in 2001, and Safe Routes to School was its first project.

The concept of ensuring safe walking routes to school is popular in Britain, and it is catching on in the United States. A transportation safety award (a grant from the Federal Highway Administration via the Virginia Department of Transportation) provided funds for the program in Charlottesville and paid for part-time staff.

Kids began using the safe routes on April 2, 2003, with the first Walking Wednesday, orchestrated by the alliance and the Greenbrier Parent-Teacher Organization and Neighborhood Association, at Greenbrier Elementary School. Every pupil walked to school that day. Pupils who normally traveled by school bus or rode with a parent were instead dropped off some distance from the school, and from there they walked with adult supervision.

Walking Wednesdays became a permanent feature at Greenbrier Elementary, but some pupils make the supervised walk to school more often, thanks to the walking school bus, according to Alia Anderson, executive director of the alliance; her previous position with the group was coordinator of the Safe Routes to School program. The walking school bus consists of volunteer parents who provide a supervised walk to school along established school bus routes, picking up children along the way, and walking as far as a mile and a half. On some walking school bus routes, the trip is once a month or for special occasions, such as International Walk to School Day, but one walking school bus makes the trip by foot daily.

Since the first Walking Wednesday, the Safe Routes to School Program has expanded to another elementary school and to Buford Middle School—“one I’m really proud of,” said Anderson. A lot of people, including the school nurse, had noticed a serious obesity problem among the students at that school. With a grant from the Virginia Department of Health, the school added pedestrian and bicycle education to its health classes and obtained 25 bicycles for use by the students. The alliance presented this program to the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and now the city plans to include pedestrian and bicycle education in all its physical education classes.

The alliance also promotes safe walking routes in the wider community, providing pedestrian education at Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, to neighborhood groups and at community events such as the Bike Rodeo, said Anderson. One activity in the Bike Rodeo is to secure a bicycle to a Charlottesville Transit Service bus; all the local transit buses have bike racks. Alliance volunteers also give helmet safety lessons to preschoolers riding tricycles, and the safe walking routes to school are included on the Charlottesville mobility map prepared by the alliance. These efforts have led more people, both adults and children, to take advantage of walking routes for recreation and for basic transportation to get around Charlottesville.

To increase community choice in transportation, the alliance is working on other projects too, such as public education and a possible trolley line on West Main Street.

For more information on the Safe Routes to School Program, see the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation website.