Galax’s Safe Routes to Schools program promotes healthy activity for the whole community
Marisa C. Jones
Late summer brings a return to yellow school buses on Virginia roads. It also means more kids walking and bicycling on their way to and from school. This is particularly true in the City of Galax, which has a nationally-acclaimed Safe Routes to School program.
An international movement with federal recognition and funding, Safe Routes to School creates safe, convenient, and fun opportunities for children to bicycle and walk to and from schools. Programs can be volunteer run or coordinated by paid staff from the local government, school district, public health department, or a local nonprofit.
Galax’s Safe Routes to School program began in 2011, when City Council led the formation of a School Travel Plan and developed a team including the city manager, police department, engineering department, superintendent of public school division, chairman of the school board, and parks and recreation department.
The city was successful in receiving several small grants in 2011 to kick off its Safe Routes to School activities. With a $1,000 grant from the National Center for Safe Routes to School, Galax held a bike rodeo and bike training program. A $2,000 grant from Prevention Connections, a state non-profit organization, helped them conduct walk-to-school events and offer incentives.
Later initiatives used Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) funds to resolve barriers and challenges for children to safely travel to school. With no sidewalk in front of two of its schools, Galax pursued VDOT funds to develop infrastructure for walking and biking, creating sidewalks and safer streets. The city also applied for funds for traffic safety education and an engagement campaign to promote walking and bicycling.
In addition to seeing Safe Routes to School as an opportunity to improve traffic safety, Galax viewed it as an opportunity to support residents in making healthy choices about physical activity. As part of a walk audit in 2012, the city looked at rates of unhealthy weight among school-aged children. Walking one mile to and from school each day equals two-thirds of the sixty minutes of physical activity recommended a day, helping kids achieve healthy weights.
A critical component of the program’s success is leadership from the city to promote safe walking and biking to schools and beyond. In 2014, the city formalized its vision when it issued a proclamation stating its commitment to growing a Safe Routes to School program and encouraging all citizens to participate in bicycling and sharing the road.
“Early on, the city and school district saw connectivity and safety as mainstays of a viable Safe Routes to School program”, said to Keith Barker, Galax city administrator. “With all three Galax schools on a central campus, the city wants to assure the safety of all who are walking, biking to the schools and link the schools with the entire community.”
In Galax, the Safe Routes to School program provides in-classroom bicycle and pedestrian education, which has reached 2,200 Galax Elementary students in four years. The program also has distributed 450 free helmets to students. Between 2013 and 2015, Galax doubled the number of students walking to school and last year had more than 750 students participate in Walk to School Day, an annual celebration that occurs on the first Wednesday of October. The progression of its efforts earned Galax the James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award in 2016.
Beyond the school yard
Safe Routes to School is more than a transportation safety improvement program for school-aged children. Since it started, Safe Routes to School has transformed into a way of life in this southwestern Virginia community of 7,000 residents.
Galax’s Safe Routes to School Coordinator Linda Mock shared, “If a community desires to re-establish neighborhoods, inject downtown areas with energy, and teach its citizens life-saving health habits, then Safe Routes to School is a good place to start.”
Galax reports more people walking and bicycling downtown, using “feet, not fuel” to traverse the city. Mock shared that shop owners have contacted her to request assistance installing bike racks for the increasing number of customers arriving at their shops on bike.
As a member of the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Cities & Towns Campaign for the Mid-Atlantic, a partnership between the Institute for Public Health Innovation and the Virginia Municipal League and funded by Kaiser Permanente, Galax was awarded a mini-grant to build on its community-wide walkability efforts.
The grant from HEAL supported the incorporation of the city’s arts community into walking and walkability. Using grant funds, wayfinding signs were installed at points of interest including near the trailhead of the New River Trail State Park. Decorative benches were added to provide respite for pedestrians as they stroll throughout the mountainous city.
The city proudly hosts Virginia’s first and only bike library, where people of any age can check out bicycles from the Parks and Recreation Department the way they would a library book. This makes bike riding accessible for people of all income levels and appeals to families and residents who may not use bicycling as a primary mode of transportation, rather as an opportunity for family bonding and spending time together in the city or its parks and nature trails.
As the city continues to grow its Safe Routes to School program and promote walkability throughout the community, it considers the needs of people walking and biking when funds are available for transportation projects. Planning for and identifying funding sources that support safe walking and bicycling has enabled Galax to provide neighborhoods with new or improved sidewalks, crosswalks, and traffic signals that make safe walking and biking a reality.
Most recently, Galax will receive grant funding to finish sidewalk improvements in front of the elementary school and address a nearby intersection that was identified by both the city and parents through parent surveys as a deterrent to safe walking. The award will replace the existing traffic signal with a new signal that integrates pedestrian controls and crossing to help children walking to school.
Exemplified by Galax’s experience, Safe Routes to School is an excellent starting point for cities, towns, and counties that want to get more people out walking and bicycling. With benefits ranging from improved traffic safety, physical and mental health, environmental and economic, Safe Routes to School is good for all communities.
Making safe routes to school happen in your community
To get started with Safe Routes to School where you live, visit the Safe Routes to School National Partnership website at www.saferoutespartnership.org.
The Virginia Department of Transportation offers four funding opportunities to support communities’ Safe Routes to School efforts, including:
- $1,000 mini-grants six times per year to jumpstart Safe Routes to School activities.
- Walkabout mini-grants to conduct walk and bike audits around schools. Applications are available twice annually in the spring and fall.
- Grants between $5,000-$100,000 for education, encouragement, evaluation, and enforcement aspects of Safe Routes to School programs. This can also be used to fund a local Safe Routes to School coordinator. These non-infrastructure grants are available annually in the spring.
- Other infrastructure grants to support improvements to street and road design. Applications due November 1, 2017.
About the author:
Marisa C. Jones is the healthy communities manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. She can be reached at (215) 510-2545 or email@example.com.