Scott and Gilbert: Safe Routes to School Keep Our Kids and Our Communities Fit

Posted March 6, 2012 at 10:06am

As parents, we know that being a good role model can help create a healthy environment at home and teach our kids to make healthy choices. As policymakers, we understand that our decisions can have an effect on the opportunities that people have to eat healthy foods and be physically active within our communities.

As Congress debates the transportation reauthorization bill, our leaders will make such a choice — a decision that will affect more than 12,000 schools with Safe Routes to School programs and the communities they serve.

In 2005, concerned with the long-term health and traffic consequences of fewer children walking and biking to school, Congress approved funding for Safe Routes to School programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Communities like ours across the country are using this funding to construct new bike lanes, pathways and sidewalks.

Unfortunately, the introduced version of the House transportation reauthorization bill would eliminate funding for the federal Safe Routes to School program and other initiatives that promote biking and walking. It appears the Senate will include an amendment to protect the program in its version, but it remains to be seen what the final outcome will be after the House weighs in.

One of the most effective ways to increase active living in our communities is to provide safe walking and biking routes to school. In 1969, almost half of students walked or bicycled to school, and most lived within a mile of school. Today, fewer than one in six students walk or bicycle to school. As a result, kids today are less active, less independent and less healthy.

You may have heard the prognosis — if we don’t act now to reverse the obesity epidemic, this generation of young people may be the first in our history to live sicker and die younger than the previous generation. More than 23 million of our children and adolescents are overweight or obese. Nearly one in three of our young people are at a higher risk for serious health problems. This doesn’t have to be the case.

In cities throughout Oklahoma, Safe Routes to School funds have been used to construct almost 55 miles of sidewalks, safe access routes and school zone improvements such as pedestrian signals, lighting and school zone signage. In 2010, the Tulsa program included a six-week bike education course that gave our students the confidence to ride to school safely and their parents the peace of mind to let them. It began as the Owen Elementary Safe Routes to School program but was expanded to include the Mark Twain, Marshall, McClure and Rosa Parks (Union) elementary schools after requests from many other Tulsa schools to participate.

More than 150 students in the third, fourth and fifth grades learned bicycle safety taught by certified instructors. By the end of the program, the students were taking regular neighborhood rides with community volunteers, teachers and police and fire department escorts. Private donors and local businesses were also supportive, providing new bicycles and equipment to students who completed the program.

One of the most important results is the confidence that local school principals see in their students. A fourth grader who was frequently in trouble and insecure became a confident and positive school leader after learning to ride a bike in the program. She also improved academically. Another child went on to learn how to swim as a result of her new-found confidence — giving her yet another opportunity for active living.

Across our nation, policymakers, community leaders and people in the private sector are collaborating to build neighborhoods that support healthy communities, but we still have a long way to go. Safe Routes to School programs represent our best efforts of working together to improve traffic congestion, the environment and the safety and health of our children and communities.

Without federal support for Safe Routes to School, it would have been impossible to deliver high-quality projects with such great results. We must place a high priority on supporting and improving the policies and programs that make a difference. Together, we can reverse the obesity epidemic and fulfill our responsibility to give our children the best opportunity to live healthy lives.

Democrat Seneca Scott is a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Republican Karen Gilbert is a Tulsa city councilor.