By Amy Orndorff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Bike riding was something that Sherly Poma, 14, avoided for a long time after a childhood accident left her with a scraped knee, but you wouldn't know it watching her confidently biking around the parking lot at Alexandria's Minnie Howard School earlier this month.
Poma and her classmates were doing riding drills as part of a program designed to encourage kids to bike for exercise. The message got through to Poma; this fall she will start biking to T.C. Williams High School.
"I found out that I like biking," Poma said, adding that she has no intention of giving up two-wheeled transportation when she gets her driver's license. "I like biking. I like the rush."
City, school and PTA officials are hoping that with a new federally funded Safe Routes to School grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation, they can persuade more students to be like Poma and bike or walk to school as a way to improve fitness and reduce vehicle pollution. The grant also feeds into the 2006 Community Pathways resolution, introduced by City Council members Paul Smedberg (D) and Rob Krupicka (D) to spearhead necessary improvements throughout the city.
"With the obesity epidemic and the environmental issues . . . [bike-riding to school] is a great alternative," said Misty Stahr, a physical education teacher who will run the program at Francis C. Hammond Middle School.
Part of the $517,000 grant will go toward educating students in kindergarten through eighth grade using material similar to what Poma learned in class. Middle school students will be able to take part in an after-school club that will show them Alexandria's bike paths as possible alternate routes to school. Stahr hopes to be able to give away a bike as an incentive.
At the elementary school level, programs will be centered on helping kids walk to school safely. James K. Polk Elementary School will focus on eliminating four-wheeled traffic on Fitness Fridays. One strategy parents and teachers have created is a "walking bus" program in which groups of students will walk to school with a parent leading the way.
"We do have a lot of people who drive and they really don't have to," said Suzanne Johnson, a Polk PTA parent volunteer who walks her kids to school. "If you just tell your child that's what they need to do, then they are fine with that."
The city will spend a considerable portion of the grant on improving infrastructure to address parents' concerns about crosswalk safety, officials said. Pedestrian countdown timers will be installed at 15 intersections throughout the city, new bike racks will be put up and some intersections will be re-engineered to make them safer.
"There is also a perception that [walking or biking to school] is unsafe because of traffic congestion," said Yon Lambert, the coordinator of pedestrian and bicycle programs for the city. "We have to overcome these perceptions."
The intersection in front of Charles Barrett Elementary School is one that will be reconstructed. Directly in front of the main entrance, Martha Custis and Valley drives merge, headed toward West Glebe Road. Both two-lane streets are heavily used, and the student crosswalk is where the four lanes meet. The city plans to use some of the grant money to extend the median, easing traffic confusion and giving students a safe spot to cross. Improvements in pedestrian safety and intersections are also planned at Polk, George Mason and Cora Kelly elementary schools.
"We have engineered walking and biking kids to school out of their daily lives, and we need to do things to get that back into their daily lives," Lambert said.
The mayor and City Council hope the new programs will help students see biking and walking to school as more routine, as they say it was when they were kids.
"When I was going to school, 99 percent of the student body walked or rode their bike to school, and I did both," said Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D), who said she still bikes twice a week. "I just enjoyed it. I didn't realize what a good health thing" it was.
Pepper estimates that less than 20 percent of students who attend Alexandria public schools walk or ride their bikes to school regularly. She said "it really has to be contributing a bit to the obesity problem."
Mayor William D. Euille (D) agrees that even a small change to students' daily routine can have a big impact on their lives.
"It's also about improving their quality of life so they can be more mobile," Euille said.
Lambert said that he has confidence in the new programs and road construction plans because smaller-scale activities, such as Walk to School Day and the middle school physical education class about biking, have been successful. Last October, schools across the city participated in Walk to School Day, and Lambert estimates that about 70 percent of students participated. At Polk, where the event was most successful, 85 percent of students took part.
If Poma is an example of the rest of the city's response to these programs, there isn't much for Lambert and the city to be concerned about.
"I think it is something everybody can enjoy, and it is good exercise," Poma said.