Safe Routes to School Grant Puts ‘Boots on the Ground’


Bend, Oregon non-profit, Commute Options, helps create safe routes to school

If you’re a parent or guardian, you can relate to worries about your child getting to and from school safely. High-speed traffic, broken or missing sidewalks, bad weather, limited daylight hours in winter: sometimes it seems easier just to drive the youngsters there and back (even as inconvenient as it may be).

The team at Commute Options in Bend heard these concerns and more, including issues around school bus driver and support staff shortages. Add in that driving a student to school isn’t an option for everyone, and you get things like students missing school, poor air quality and increased traffic in school neighborhoods, and so on.

One innovative solution: a walking school bus.

“COVID was hard on our bicycle and pedestrian safety programs, so we decided to create a walking school bus,” said Commute Options Education Program Manager Whitney Bennett. “And we wanted to direct our energy into specific neighborhoods.”

Walking school buses are simply groups of students led by an adult that walk or bike from a starting point to a school in the morning and back in the afternoon. Bennett calls the program “Education in Action,” and it includes paid staff and volunteers who integrate walking and rolling safety education into the walks.

“We went into areas where people don’t perceive it as safe for walking, and kids are missing school,” said Bennett. “We spent last summer educating families in these targeted neighborhoods about what we wanted to do.”

One step at a time

Bennett said the success has been inspiring, even if the walking groups are small.

“We don’t have walking groups of 100, 150 people – we have groups of nine that shrink to two then go back up to 10,” she said. “But some of them are students who weren’t making it to school.”

Education in Action operated in two schools this year, with a total of three walking school buses. They’d have more, Bennett said, but there’s a continual shortage of adults to lead the walking groups. Still, they’re making steady progress, and not just in getting to and from school, but in learning how to do it safely.

“Every day we’re reinforcing safety,” Bennett said. “Leaders build relationships and play games to make it fun and easier to learn.”

Bennett doesn’t have consistent bicyclists in any of the walking school buses yet, but she’s hopeful.

“On our last walk-and-ride day, we had 18 kids on bikes show up. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t even know what to do with this!’”

Partnerships support success

To help get this program up-and-running, Commute Options received an Innovation Grant from ODOT’s Safe Routes to School program and a matching grant from the Central Oregon Health Council. One of the goals is to create a guide for establishing a program. Bennett said each school is unique, but there are still things everyone can do to help a program succeed – like helping walk leaders teach safe walking and rolling.

“We give leaders something to ‘sell’ the idea to kids about the value of walking, so there are themes like Earth Month, Walk-to-School Month, Winter Walking, with prizes and awards,” Bennett said.

Another goal is to leverage the relationship with the school district to help normalize walking and rolling to school. Bennett communicates regularly with bus drivers, principals and other staff to look for trends in attendance or ridership that would provide insight.

“We are highlighting something that should be a normal effort – it’s okay to walk to school.”

Whitney Bennett, Commute Options

“We want to have a big enough impact that this becomes sustainable,” Bennett said. “…so, you come to school and see, ‘Hey, families, here are your transportation resources, and one of them is the walking school bus.’”

So far, it seems like the message is getting across.

About Author

Shelley Snow is the Strategic Communications Coordinator with Oregon Department of Transportation

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