Off the School Bus, Onto the Sidewalks

Sen. James C. Rosapepe says he wants safer sidewalks for students.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe says he wants safer sidewalks for students. (Marissa Newhall - Twp)
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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

Two Maryland lawmakers want to boost state funding for sidewalks, crossing guards, traffic signals and other pedestrian improvements that they hope will encourage more Maryland students to walk or bike to school each day.

Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George's) and Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery) want lawmakers in Annapolis to set aside 5 percent of the state's school construction budget for walk-to-school improvements. Additionally, their proposal would mandate that the state's transportation aid to local school districts make pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements a top priority. Those funds now overwhelmingly favor bus fleets and other drive-to-school approaches, Rosapepe said.

"There are a lot of kids who don't walk to school, even though they live close enough, mainly because their parents don't think it's safe," Rosapepe said. Broken pavement, a lack of striped crosswalks and traffic lights that don't allow kids enough time to scoot across intersections are some of the common barriers, he said.

"We invest a lot of taxpayer dollars in busing kids," Rosapepe said. "If we invested that same money in connecting sidewalks, hiring crossing guards and putting in the right kind of traffic signal, we could save money and make it safer and healthier for kids getting to school."

It's more than conventional wisdom that it was far more common, back in the day, for kids to walk to school (and typically in a driving blizzard, if Grandpa is to be believed); research shows the rate of walking has plummeted in the past 40 years from about 50 percent in 1969 to 15 percent in 2001, according to Raquel Rivas of the National Center for Safe Routes to School.

The causes for that drop range from crumbling infrastructure to sprawl-driven development to the increasing dominance of car culture, she said. The results are increasing strains on the environment, quality of life and children's health.

"As the percentage of children who walk to school has gone down, childhood obesity has gone up," Rivas said. "We drive everywhere."

According to Bronrott, designing roads without regard for pedestrian well-being is the biggest impediment to parents who would otherwise wave their children down the sidewalk rather than strap in them into car seats.

"If crossing the street constitutes some sort of death-defying act, there is clearly a lot more we need to do," said Bronrott, who has made traffic safety a specialty of his legislative career.

The proposal, which the two lawmakers said they will introduce in Annapolis during the legislative session that starts in January, comes as walk-to-school issues have gained prominence at all levels of government. Maryland received a $10 million federal grant last year to improve school pedestrian safety, part of the $612 million national Safe Routes to School initiative funded by the U.S. Transportation Department. The state has spent $8.5 million on its program, which pays for infrastructure improvements, law enforcement and safety education programs at schools throughout Maryland.

Rockville, for example, launched a $435,000 effort last year that set up police speed checks around six schools, improved traffic signage and provided walking and bike safety training to physical education teachers, who pass on the lessons to students, Rivas said.

Bronrott and Rosapepe said their bill would not require additional state funds. Instead, it would steer existing school construction money to pedestrian improvements for new buildings and those undergoing rehabilitation. And it would give principals seeking to make their school neighborhoods more walkable increased access to state school transportation funds.

The legislators said they would try to make an economic case to their fellow lawmakers: Any money spent getting kids to walk and bike would cut future health-care and bus-fuel costs.

"If we spend $100,000 on some sidewalks, and that means we don't have to bus 30 kids for 40 years, we're going to end up saving the taxpayers money," Rosapepe said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company