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More Children Walking to School in California

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Newly analyzed data shows that more children are walking to school in California, just as the Safe Routes to School program is facing a potential cut in funding in Governor Jerry Brown’s budget. 

The 2009 data from the National Household Survey, commissioned by the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, was taken from 22,000 California households. It found a ten percent increase in the number of children walking to school between 1999 and 2009.

The six counties within the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) planning region had the highest number of children who walk to school, at 27 percent, along with the largest number of those who live within two miles of school, at 75 percent.  

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Travel behavioral analyst Nancy McGuckin, who examined the data, said the level of walking among children headed to school was quite different between the regions.

Some of that had to do with the percentage of children in private schools, who are more likely to be driven. The Bay Area had the highest number of kids in private schools. 

"With more children in private schools, those distances are longer, usually. They’re not the little neighborhood elementary schools that we’re familiar with. And so more children are driven," she said.

The Sacramento region, which plans to host a Safe Routes to School national conference this August, had the lowest percentage of children who walk and bike and live within 2 miles of their schools primarily because schools are sprawled out. 

"They’ve closed the little tiny schools that used to be in the neighborhoods and consolidated them. And these are all for the right reasons, you know. Having bigger schools means you can have more amenities like pools, and teams and things, but it means that children live farther from school," McGuckin pointed out. 

The survey also looked at socioeconomic disparities that influence whether a child walks or bikes to school:

Among high-earning households, significantly more children are driven to school and fewer children walk or bicycle than in lower-income households. African-American and Hispanic/Latino students are much more likely to walk or bicycle to school compared to their White or Asian counterparts, who are much more likely to be driven to school. 

Although the SCAG region had the largest percentage of children who walk, half of kids who live within two miles of school are still driven, which McGuckin said presents an enormous mode shift opportunity. 

"If you start at the young ages, and you teach kids to walk and bike to school, for instance, they’ll walk and bike more for other purposes. Two and a half times more, actually, from this data, than the children who were driven to school," she explained.

"So, when they get older, they’re independent and familiar with walking and biking and think about walking and biking as potential ways to get around, to get to the store, to get to work, and they become healthier adults and people who have a great choice in how they travel."

That’s why, say biking and walking advocates, programs such as Safe Routes to School are so important. But in Governor Brown’s current state budget proposal, funds set aside for Safe Routes would end. 

“The current proposal, as written, is a step backward for California’s active transportation future. The budget proposal needs to be amended to include dedicated funds for Safe Routes to School, to eliminate loopholes and to ensure that pedestrian and bicycle funding continues to flow to local agencies,” said Deb Hubsmith, the director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

See more of the data here

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Advocates Call on Jerry Brown to Prioritize Biking and Walking in State Budget

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A proposal in Governor Jerry Brown’s budget that would change how the administration doles out federal and state money for biking and walking improvements could imperil critical street safety programs such as Safe Routes to School at a time when California is facing a growing health crisis and trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

"It does not reflect a serious sense of purpose by this Governor’s Office or the transportation bureaucracy to really make bicycling and walking a central part of California’s transportation system," said Dave Snyder of the California Bicycle Coalition.

The move by the administration is a response to the federal transportation bill passed by Congress last year. MAP-21 ended some dedicated funding for biking and walking programs.

States are also receiving less money under Transportation Alternatives (TA), the federal program previously known as Transportation Enhancements, which historically granted the bulk of bicycle and pedestrian funding to state transportation agencies and metropolitan planning organizations. 

The League of American Bicyclists is encouraging state transportation agencies to make up for the cuts by seeking funding for street safety projects from other eligible pots of federal money.

California is receiving $80 million in TA funds, $13 million less than last year. In its current form, Brown’s budget, which has been widely praised for being balanced, would not kick in any other money to make up for the loss.

Under the administration’s proposal, the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, which oversees Caltrans, would combine five funding programs, including Safe Routes and the Bicycle Transportation Account, into what’s being called the “Active Transportation Program” (ATP).

The combined total in the account would be $134 million, compared to $147 million last year. 

Although the administration has been publicly tight-lipped about the proposal, Deb Hubsmith of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and other biking and walking advocates who have been briefed say it’s being sold as a way to grow investments in biking and walking programs.

However, the current proposal would make the grant process more competitive — meaning money could be siphoned away from biking and walking and into roads and highways — as well as potentially freeze funds and result in lay-offs for Caltrans staffers who have expertise in street safety projects. 

"It’s critical that this program start the funding level to recent years, that it truly be for walking and bicycling improvements, and that there be no interruption in active transportation funding," said Hubsmith.

The funding cuts would come at a time when California’s fatality rate for bike riders and walkers is almost twice the national average, and the state is working to meet stringent environmental goals.

A coalition of organizations is leading an effort to gain assurances that there will be a minimum funding guarantee for Safe Routes to School. According to new data from the National Household Travel Survey collected by Hubsmith’s group, Safe Routes to School has helped to boost annual walking trips in the state among children ages 5 to 15 by 10 percent since it was pioneered in California in 1999.  

"Safe Routes to School has been highly successful at improving safety for children, increasing physical activity, and providing alternatives to driving," said Hubsmith. "We need to work together to achieve California’s goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, safety, social equity and sustainability.

A petition launched last week, led by Safe Routes, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, TransForm, California Walks and the California Bike Coalition, urges the Governor “to make the new Active Transportation Program truly transformational for bicycling and walking in the state.” So far, more than 7,000 people and 150 organizations have signed it.  

While advocates are worried about the way it’s currently written, they also said the program has great promise. 

"I’m excited about it and I want to be a part of shaping it because I think it has the potential to really elevate active transportation as a priority for California," said Laura Cohen, the director of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s west coast division.

Hubsmith said overall transportation funding for California remains level. If the administration can propose steady funding for road and highway projects, advocates point out, why can’t it prioritize biking and walking? 

They know that having choices besides driving alone can save us money, improve our health and our environment, and create long-lasting economic benefits,” said Joshua Stark, the state campaign director for TransForm. 

Bicycle and pedestrian funding can have tremendous benefits, and we support combining the different sources into a single fund as long as funding levels stay the same or grow, and critical programs like Safe Routes to Schools continue.”

The Governor’s Office is expected to release more details Friday, when the budget trailer bills are released, and advocates are hoping to persuade administration officials to crank it up a notch.

"We want to see that the structure of this program matches our bold vision for the state of California, and ensures a healthy transportation future for kids and everyone," said Hubsmith. 

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(Photo: Myleen Hollero