Thursday, May 3, 2012

Quarterly Feature: "How Lamar Middle School created a walk/bike-to-school culture"

By Jane H. Herrin
Mirabeau B. Lamar Middle School PTA
Lamar MS-Safe Routes to School Coordinator
Texas children are at risk.
13% - of Texas school children walk or bike to school today, compared to 66% in 1975.*
30% - of the average Texas morning rush hour traffic is school related. *
35% - of Texas school children are overweight or obese. *
62% - of Texas children do not participate in organized physical activity.
74% - of Texas children do not meet state guidelines for physical education. *
* Department of Health Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Several years ago, an average of 5 students were riding bikes to Lamar Middle School in central Austin. Now many days, you will find 30 bikes on campus. More students walk, ride bikes, ride the bus or carpool than ever before.

We did this by creating an environment that encourages students to walk and bike to school. After 55 years, Lamar Middle School was showing real signs of wear and tear and students/parents lacked interest in walking and biking to school. After auditing the perimeter of the school, parents and staff came up with a daunting “to do” list. Obvious safety problems included the “bike rack” crumbling from rust, dated and rusted traffic signs and yellow bus signs, even telephone pole supports that were dangling into the street, and very sad vegetation and trees out front --  not to mention sewer and garbage odor for an unwelcome greeting. The oddly designed street was a hazard as it widened right where students would be approaching the school. 

Now after working with Austin ISD, City of Austin and Capitol Metro, many of the safety issues have been addressed. 
·      Lamar has a new bike rack, appropriate signage for arrival/departure of students, traffic signs, a traffic light, and stripping on street and parking lots.
·      Three student arrival/departure locations designed to diversify traffic.
·      Several neighborhood sidewalks have been installed and there are more to come.
·      Over 30 trees have been planted for shade.
·      Overgrowth of bushes and trees has been trimmed and dead trees removed.
·      Power washed sidewalks and repaired entry benches, and freshly painted each entrance and front of building.
·      Sewer lines are repaired.
·      This summer a handicap parking space will be installed in front of the school, various sidewalk ramps added, divided median cut through for wheelchairs and bikes, crosswalks installed and resurfacing of the street in front of the school.

How did we get here? All of this work began several years ago with a PTA meeting to introduce the National Safe Routes to School Program. “Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs are sustained efforts by parents, schools, community leaders and local, state, and federal governments to improve the health and well-being of children by enabling and encouraging them to walk and bicycle to school.”

A panel was selected to help answer questions about traveling to school and to discover what has been explored and what’s in the works already. The panel included the Principal, parent, local Neighborhood Association President and Sustainable Neighborhoods representative. Some families shared safety concerns before the meeting. After much discussion, we came to the conclusion that the number one problem was the arrival/departure of students – a Traffic Plan was established that night!
From there a Lamar PTA, SR2S program committee was established. For a long-term commitment, we invited community neighbors, future Lamar parents, current parents and Lamar Administration, all are the stakeholders. PTA provided the operational budget.
Using Texas Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School guide as a template we began to identify projects, gather data, make a plan and set long-term goals.

Who you gonna call? Austin ISD and City of Austin have been very supportive of our program by installing a new bike rack, street and parking lot striping, bus signs, no parking signs, traffic signs and soon to add handicap parking on the street, paint new cross walks and add ramps to sidewalks. Upon our request, Capital Metro installed two new bus stops. Now they even have planted some trees!

We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with Clean Sweep, Keep Austin Beautiful and the Austin Rotary Club, Sustainable Neighborhoods, the Seedling Group and various church groups that have worked with our volunteers to freshen up the surrounding neighborhood, school grounds and planted trees.  Sidewalks and street gutters are cleared, bushes and tree limbs trimmed from traffic signs. All these efforts have made walking and biking to school safer.

What about encouragement and education?  CATCH-Family Fun Fitness Night we hosted bike-related demonstrations on how to change a bike tire, how to wear your helmet and test student’s knowledge playing the “Bike, Wheel of Fortune!” Sunday afternoons we enjoyed a “Bike, Slow Race!” to show how slow can you ride without touching the ground – the slowest time wins! This is a strategy to control your bike. We also had professional bike mechanics on hand to show students how to properly adjust the seat, take care of the chain and tires. One really successful fun event was the “Bike Swap.” Students and even neighbors donated bikes, and anyone could pick out another bike. Yellow Bike accepted all of the extra donated bikes. For  6th Grade Transitional Camp we had workshops on using public transportation and personal safety. Austin Police Department had an interactive discussion on “Bullying,” to gain knowledge on how to deal with others while traveling to/from school. Austin Fire Department came and demonstrated strategies on being safer at home – how to cook safely and what to do in case of a fire and more. Capital Metro presented a workshop on how to plan a bus trip using their website, how to catch the bus, plus being safe around train tracks.

The Bike Texas Safe Routes to School Program seeks to:
SHARE the importance and fun of physical activity
TEACH children safe walking and bicycling behaviour
HELP students arrive more alert and ready to learn
REDUCE traffic congestion and speed near schools
INSTILL responsibility and self-confidence in children
RECLAIM neighbourhood streets

For more information contact Bike Texas,

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