Compared to a generation and more ago, the number of students biking or walking to school has plunged, but two local groups are hoping to turn that trend around.
Mary Smith of North Carolina Safe Routes to School and Joe Sanders, the Henderson County representative for the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club, have been putting their heads together over the past year on how to best get kids safely to school via ways that don't contribute to gridlock.
“The city is struggling with Ninth Avenue traffic — for every kid that rides a bike in, you get a car off the road,” said Sanders, who is also on the steering committee for the Hendersonville Bike Plan.
Sanders and others working on the bike plan would like to see more dedicated routes leading to the schools around Ninth Avenue with shared lane markings for bikes, as was done for Fourth Avenue in 2014.
Both Sanders and Smith are clear on the challenges — not only ensuring safety, but putting the pieces in place to encourage more to bike or walk to school. As a regional coordinator for Safe Routes to School, Smith believes the statewide project is perfect for preparing schools to get more kids safely to school on foot or via bicycle.
“If it’s hooked into NCDOT, then you’ve got street improvements, bike lanes, sidewalks, connectivity; it’s like a total package, even from a health standpoint,” said Smith.
The North Carolina Safe Routes to School Project, a state project using federal funding, is supported by a partnership between the N.C. Division of Public Health and the N.C. Department of Transportation.
This is the fourth year of the Safe Routes to School project grant, which has been extended to May 2019. The project emphasizes safety, encouragement through events and working with schools to assess if they have a walkable and bikeable environment, according to Smith.
“It’s a great lifestyle. You can ride a bike from 8 to 80,” said Smith. “It builds a lifetime of healthy habits.”
From a local health standpoint, with obesity again identified as a top priority in the 2015 Community Health Assessment, Sanders and Smith believe the move to promote active routes to school makes timely sense, as does Stacy Taylor, health education director, Henderson County Department of Public Health.
“Programs like Safe Routes to School are vital if we want to turn the curve on obesity in our community,” said Taylor. “There is strong evidence that Safe Routes to School increases the number of students walking or biking to school, and therefore establishing (the) program was a recommended strategy to increase physical activity among students.”
The program is making some headway, as schools have been approached one by one by Smith to gauge interest in participation. “Safe Routes to School aims to create safe, convenient and fun opportunities for children to bicycle and walk to and from schools,” Smith said. “The goal is to reverse the decline in children walking and bicycling to schools, increase kids' safety and reverse the alarming nationwide trend toward childhood obesity and inactivity.”
“Streets are our most fundamental shared public spaces, but they are also one of the most contested and overlooked,” added Smith. “Public health is being more proactive in the planning arena in an effort to challenge and change this trend.”
In November 2015, Sugarloaf Elementary taught the program’s Let's Go NC Bicycle curriculum and implemented a walking-at-school program and challenge after Smith promoted the idea to P.E. teachers there. Also, two new schools, Hendersonville Elementary and Hendersonville High, participated in Bike to School Day in May, with about 40 individuals rolling into schools on bikes.
Smith is hoping to make additional inroads following a meeting with John Bryant, associate superintendent, in mid-August. “Kids and bicycles just go together,” she said.
Sanders cites research that connects physical activity in kids with better performance in school, revealed in June in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. “Making your community bike friendly is not just to relieve congestion, it’s for health,” said Sanders.
From the planning side, those working to shape the city's bike plan are considering recommended routes around the downtown area as well as from neighborhoods to schools. Steering committee members have proposed routes that would funnel students and staff to schools along the Ninth Avenue corridor, to Hendersonville High and Middle schools, as well as Hendersonville Elementary and Bruce Drysdale Elementary. Sanders said they’d like to have Whitted Street established as a bike-friendly street to connect the southern part of the city with the schools. A proposal for a recommended bike lane along Seventh Avenue would connect the Green Meadows Community to Bruce Drysdale and to Hendersonville High and Middle.
“It just makes sense, and then you stop and consider the environmental impact,” Sanders said. “Communities need to be thinking about what will make a difference.”
An open house, set for 5-7 p.m. Aug. 24 at the City Operations Center (305 Williams St.), will serve as a community input session on the recommended Hendersonville Bike Plan project and its programs and policies. “It’s all there, let’s just connect the data, resources, curriculum and positions,” Sanders added.
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