In 2005, David Stephenson, principal at Alpine Elementary in Alpine, Utah, stood in front of the school watching cars speed by while as many as 50 vehicles converged on a drop-off area meant for 15. There has to be a better way, he thought. Stephenson, 39, and his friends used to walk or ride to school--maybe he could encourage more Alpine kids to do the same.
Parents were receptive to the idea, but even in this town of 10,000 people, traffic made everyone nervous. In the past five years, two kids-one on foot, one on a bike-had been struck.
Alpine's situation was similar to that of communities across the country. Parents who spent their childhoods pedaling to school or a neighbor's house with little more than a quick wave to Mom now squirm at the thought of letting their children do the same. Statistics released early this spring by the Department of Transportation report that in 1969 nearly 50 percent of children rode or walked to school; today only 13 percent do. Safety is a primary reason, but other factors include distance-three decades ago, city planners began building schools on the edges of towns, where land was cheaper-and America's car culture, which has resulted in a nationwide infrastructure that often doesn't accommodate cyclists. (During the same period that saw commuting on foot and bike decline, school-bus ridership rose only 2 percent, indicating that most students who live close enough to walk or ride were being driven.)
But thousands of communities are gradually overcoming these roadblocks-and in the process pioneering a growing effort to turn the United States into a more bike-and pedestrian-friendly nation. Take Alpine, for example, where the school secured a grant for $12,000 from Safe Routes to School (SRTS) and partnered with the city. Together they added crosswalks, school-zone signs and bike racks, and organized parent-led biking and walking groups-key components to easing parents' fears. The result: The percentage of kids living within 2 miles of school who walk or bike jumped from 32 to 50 percent.
Similar outcomes can be found in every state, says Lauren Marchetti, director of SRTS, which works with more than 5,000 communities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Some towns are taking a comprehensive (rather than a single-school) approach. Projects under way in Starkville, Mississippi, include striping bike lanes along roads leading from subdivisions to the town's schools. And Taylor, Texas, is constructing a trail network to connect schools to parks, shopping centers and medical facilities.
Other signs of momentum: The League of American Bicyclists's (LAB) Bicycle Friendly Community program has 140 BFC designations today compared with only 48 in 2005. "Mayors are jumping on board not because they're big cyclists, but because biking and walking are a part of the quality-of-life equation," says league president Andy Clarke. He also notes that 20 to 30 years ago, city and town planners gave little consideration to the needs of walkers and bikers, and that shift alone is huge. In fact, in the Traverse Mountain community, near Alpine, the new elementary school was situated so that all students will live within 1.5 miles of the front door.
That value shift has registered at the federal level. Earlier this year, first lady Michelle Obama launched her Let's Move initiative, which recommended walking and biking to school. In March, U.S. secretary of transportation Ray LaHood announced the end of the Era of the Car, stating on his blog that from now on, America will be "integrating the needs of bicyclists in federally funded road projects." The advocacy group Complete Streets is working to ensure that the new federal transportation bill, scheduled to pass this December, turns that promise into law.
Enjoy a celebratory moment, but remember that change takes time. "It'll be a generation before we get to where we want to be," says Clarke. But he also says there are opportunities to seize during the second half of the bike-friendly Obama administration: "We have a two-year window to take advantage of the momentum." Start or volunteer at a SRTS program (saferoutesinfo.org). And get on your bike, and get your kids on theirs. "The number one piece of advocacy we can do," says Clarke, "is ride."