Walking and biking were once extremely common ways for children to get to school.
Not so anymore.
But Chippewa Valley officials are seeking to reverse that trend by identifying, improving and promoting safe routes to school.
“The idea is to make streets and sidewalks safe enough for kids to walk or ride their bikes to school,” said Altoona schools Superintendent Dan Peggs.
The problem is that in recent decades an increasing number of parents across the country have gotten the perception that it’s not safe to let their kids walk or ride bikes to school, said Lindsay Olson, an associate planner with the Eau Claire-based West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
The impact on walking and biking rates has been dramatic.
Roughly 48 percent of children ages 5 to 14 walked or biked to school in 1969, including 89 percent of those living within a mile of their school, according to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. Fifty years later, those numbers have dropped to 13 and 35 percent, respectively.
Based on surveys of families in the Altoona, Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls school districts — excluding schools with few students living within a mile — 16 percent of area students walk or bike to school, Olson said.
Officials from those area districts and their communities are teaming up in an effort to get more families to make the choice to let their children walk or bike to school.
They recently formed a Chippewa Valley Safe Routes to School Partnership to work together toward that goal, which carries the important side benefits of promoting wellness through physical activity among students, reducing vehicle emissions and fuel consumption by having fewer vehicles driving to school and saving parents the time of making those daily drives, Olson said.
Safe Routes to School is an international movement, which began in Denmark in the 1970s, that promotes walking and biking to school.
The local partnership’s primary goals are to generate awareness of identified safe routes, help drivers be more aware of school zones and pedestrians, and motivate more students to safely walk and bike to school, she said.
Safe routes were identified through geospatial analysis, audits of parents and teachers and by observing the routes children naturally gravitate toward, Olson said, noting that schools and districts make maps available to parents illustrating the recommended paths.
By collaborating, districts and communities are more likely to use the same language and signage, spreading a consistent message to drivers and students across the Chippewa Valley.
“It gets more attention and creates a bigger footprint in terms of education,” Peggs said. “That’s especially important for a little school district like us.”
Leah Ness, Eau Claire’s deputy city engineer, said city officials check before every construction project to see if affected streets are part of the Eau Claire district’s Safe Routes plan. If so, they look for ways to add signs, crosswalks or other features to the projects to enhance safety.
Among the techniques promoted locally are adding marked crosswalks around schools, using bus corrals, creating concrete pads for bicycle parking and building bumpouts — spots where the curb juts out on both sides of a crosswalk to make pedestrians more visible and shorten the distance they need to travel to get across the street.
Reducing the number of parents driving to drop off students and getting buses off streets both serve to decrease traffic congestion around schools at pick-up and drop-off times.
“It makes the school feel and be a safer place,” Peggs said.