Fall is here and the morning walk to school is — hopefully — about to get more comfortable. The cooler mornings are just one of many reasons members of Riverside County’s Safe Routes to School Program are hoping more students will start walking and biking to school this year.
The county program, part of Injury Prevention Services, first began with the City of Riverside in 2008, later expanding into the desert region. This year the program is expanding further into several cities in Southwest Riverside County, including Hemet and Temecula.
To kick off a year of safe walks to school, many schools will participate in International Walk to School Day, which will take place Oct. 3.
Schools are encouraged to register and participate by visiting www.walkbiketoschool.org.
“We have 28 schools registered to participate,” said Marsie Huling, Safe Routes to School coordinator.
Safe Routes to School programs utilize state and federal funding to make school routes safer, and to encourage and educate community leaders, parents and schools on the benefits of walking or biking to and from school.
“The Riverside coalition is just blooming,” Huling said.
The program includes both infrastructure and non-infrastructure aspects, meaning part of the focus is on infrastructure safety issues, such as good sidewalks, working street lights and safe crosswalks.
The other focus of the program relates to non-infrastructure issues, such as education on the health and social benefits of walking and encouragement of the community to participate.
Coalition meetings devoted to discussing any issues related to safe school routes are held in the participating cities.
Huling describes the program using “the five Es,” which include engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation.
Engineering focuses on infrastructure to make it safer for people to walk and bike. Education is about teaching children how to be safe when walking or biking, which includes learning how to safely walk across the street, obey traffic signals and make eye contact with drivers.
“We now have funding for middle and high school safety programs, including topics like the danger of being distracted while texting and talking on the phone,” Huling said. “We educate the parents too about roll modeling, being a safe pedestrian and bicycle behavior.”
Enforcement is about the partnership between the Safe Routes program and local law enforcement.
“The local police come to our meetings to listen and to inform others in the coalition,” Huling said. “We want them to have a presence to help parents feel more safe.”
Evaluation is done throughout the school year to see how well the program is working.
The program also includes parent workshops, which often involve PTA or other parent groups.
“We try to brainstorm through any problems and we offer up solutions,” Huling said. “We put everything into an action plan and put it into the principal’s hands.”
International Walk to School Day will get schools involved, Huling hopes.
“This is the kick-off, but we don’t want schools to say, ‘Well, we walked to school for one day,’” she said. “We want to build momentum and see schools do ‘fit Fridays’ or ‘walk-to-school Wednesdays’ once each week.
“Whatever the school is ready for, we’ll work with that and bring signs, balloons and t-shirts to make it an exciting event.”
Jennifer Dean is a local writer and regular contributor to SWRNN.