Jeff Anderson, a parent at Wolftrap Elementary School in Fairfax, Va., wanted his daughter to bike to school. Unfortunately, the school had no bike racks. He went to the principal and the school installed bike racks. Anderson then joined other parents, school officials, and community partners to improve one of the school district’s transportation policies. Now parents from all over the community, including those with large Latino populations, have created safe routes for kids to walk and bike to district schools.
Awareness: In Spring 2008, Jeff Anderson noticed that there were no bike racks at Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna, Va., a city with a 12% Latino population.
An avid bicyclist, Anderson wanted his then-first-grade daughter to learn biking’s sense of freedom and independence.
“I just wanted my kids to be able to ride their bike anywhere,” he said. “The way I did when I was a kid.”
Learn/Frame Issue: Riding bikes to school and other forms of “active transportation” have many benefits, like relieved vehicular traffic, less air pollution, and more physical activity (and thus less obesity risk).
Anderson added: “It improves learning and overall health.”
Because bike racks are generally available upon request at Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), which have a 23% Latino student population, Anderson spoke with Wolftrap’s principal a few times in 2008 to see if they could add them to the school.
At the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, Wolftrap installed its first bike rack.
“So I said, ‘OK, now we’ve got to fill it,’” Anderson said.
Anderson started talking with parents and the PTA at Wolftrap and other schools in Vienna to identify ways to increase biking among students.
Education/Mobilization: Anderson joined Fairfax Advocates for Better Biking (FABB), a local bike advocacy group. He learned that they were interested in expanding opportunities for kids to bike to school through the Safe Routes to School (Safe Routes) movement. Because FABB didn’t have anyone completely dedicated to this effort yet, Anderson decided to champion the cause.
Along with parents from two other elementary schools in Vienna, he came up with the idea of organizing a week-long bike/walk-to-school challenge between the three schools.
“That’s what led to the first bike train at Wolftrap,” he said. “We didn’t want it to be the only time they were riding.”
After that first effort in Spring 2009, Anderson formed Wolfie’s Bike Train, a monthly bike-to-school program at Wolftrap.
Debate: While Wolftrap’s principal was very supportive of kids biking to school, Anderson found that other principals weren’t as excited about the idea.
He had a realization:
“We needed to change the district’s policy” to impact more students, Anderson said.
Anderson and other parents wondered why the district hadn’t pushed harder to make active transportation opportunities a priority among all district schools, given the resources available through Safe Routes.
“So there was this free money there [through Safe Routes] and we kind of used that to say, ‘Why aren’t we [the district] doing this?’” Anderson said.
Activation: The parents and bike advocates then spoke with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said Christine Green, the Safe Routes regional policy manager for the Washington, D.C., metro area.
In April 2011, the supervisors wrote a letter to the school district to support providing students with more walk/bike to school opportunities.
In August 2011, the FCPS organized a Safe Routes working group for parents and community members.
Green said Anderson became a key player in the group, which also included representatives from the FCPS Office of Safety and Security (FCPS OSS), FCPS Health, the Fairfax County Health Department and the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.
“We basically started hitting up the different committees in the school system, in the county, and talking to school board members,” Anderson said.
Now that there was a districtwide taskforce to support Safe Routes, parents could more effectively target problems that prevented kids from walking or biking to school.
“That was key because [the district] in turn started to embrace several [Safe Routes] events,” Anderson said.
A big obstacle surfaced: The district’s Kiss and Ride drop-off and pick-up system.
About 30% of the students within walking distance of the school (a mile or less) were being driven to and picked up from school by their parents via the Kiss and Ride program, according to a district survey. Of these students, many parents indicated they would never switch to another mode of transportation.
Some parents, though, were increasingly interested in active transportation for students, Anderson said.
The bike train at Wolftrap inspired parents at schools like Lake Anne Elementary (33% Latino) in Reston and Hollin Meadows Elementary (34% Latino) in Alexandria to seek their own Safe Routes initiatives.
Melissa Romano, a Lake Anne parent, met Anderson by chance.
“I met Jeff while purchasing a used bike from him for my son,” Romano said.
After she heard about Anderson’s bike train, she wanted to do t something similar at Lake Anne.
Another parent, Mary Porter, president of the PTA at Hollin Meadows, got advice from Anderson on how to organize a bike-to-school event and get a cross-walk installed at a busy intersection near the school.
Frame Policy: In September 2011, the taskforce met to review one of the school district’s existing policies on school bus transportation and walking routes (SB policy 8610).
The group proposed several revisions and additions:
- recognize the benefits of walking and biking to school;
- encourage parents to have their child walk and bike to school;
- contain language on biking (previously excluded); and
- give parents the right to decide whether their child walks or bikes to school.
Change: After a series of five formal meetings and some conference calls, the taskforce shared their proposed revisions of SB policy 8610 with FCPS principals and community advocates for review and comments.
The revisions were then presented to the school board as “new business” in December 2011.
At a January 12, 2012 meeting, the school board voted unanimously in favor of the changes and the new policy was enacted.
Parents have the responsibility of choosing how their child gets to school and the district now works to make Safe Routes (safe walking and biking to school) a priority.
“They all understood the basic tenets of why this is important for students and the community,” Anderson said.
With a growing demand for more physical activity opportunities and Safe Routes at schools across Fairfax County, other parent leaders like Romano and Porter initiated walk- and bike-to-school day events in 2013 at their schools.
Romano said that at Lake Anne parents and students enjoyed walking and biking so much that in October 2013, they decided to start a monthly walk/roll to school day for students.
At Hollin Meadows, Porter said they exceeded their expectation of 30 riders by having 100 riders on bike-to-school day.
Implementation: With the new policy now in effect, the taskforce worked to encourage schools across the district to join the Safe Routes to school movement. The FCPS OSS published a one-page fact sheet about “bicycle riding to school” and created a web page on the district’s website, with additional fact sheets and resources about Safe Routes. They also contacted the media and developed a press release that talked about the growing number of schools participating.
School principals were notified about the changes to SB policy 8610 via email.
During 2012, Anderson worked with other parent advocates to spread the word about national events like International Walk to School (IWTS) Day and the new National Bike to School (NBTS) day (est. May 2012).
“It was sort that grassroots growth that got more schools involved,” Anderson said. “I’ve attended a few PTA meetings to talk about what we’ve done and talked to most of those involved with Safe Routes in Fairfax.”
According to a Safe Routes work group activity report, in 2010 only 5 FCPS schools participated in IWTS day. By 2011, 27 schools had signed up to participate in IWTS day, which takes place each October.
As stated in a Safe Routes National Partnership blog, Anderson has even led bike trains at other schools, like Marshall Road elementary, just to help parents feel more comfortable with their kids biking to school.
“There’s this perception that bicycling is much more dangerous than walking to school,” Anderson said. “But if you teach the kids correctly it’s no more dangerous, it’s equally safe. That’s kind of a national gap we have to address.”
In 2013, a total of 16 schools in Reston and Vienna competed to see which town could get more kids to walk and bike to school during IWTS day.
Anderson said that, at Wolftrap, up to 75 kids have ridden in one day.
“We’ve ridden every month during weather ranging from 10 degrees to 85 degrees,” he said.
At schools like Lake Anne, Romano said many Latino families who generally commute from farther distances, have become regulars at the school’s monthly walk and roll to school event.
Every first Friday of the month, Lake Anne students and their parents gather at a nearby park to walk and bike to school. When they arrive, children run around and play games in one of the school’s empty fields, while parents enjoy coffee and snacks donated by local businesses.
Children who participate in the event get an inexpensive incentive like a token that encourages them to continue walking and biking to school.
One Lake Anne parent, Tatiana Gómez-Ayala, said her kids don’t have many opportunities to walk, so they and other Latino families especially enjoy these active transportation opportunities.
“Several parents have said they wish they could do it every other week, because it’s done so well…it’s like a buddy system,” Gómez-Ayala said.
Equity/Sustainability: As of January 2014, the FCPS hired a new Safe Routes coordinator, Sally Smallwood.
Now thanks to a recent community transformation grant (CTG) that was awarded to the county, Smallwood says the school district will be able to implement more Safe Routes initiatives at three Title I elementary schools: Mount Vernon Woods (59% Latino); Hybla Valley (78 % Latino); and Crestwood (67% Latino).
While Porter would like to start a monthly walk/bike to school day program at Hollin Meadows, she says that parents feel it’s important for the school to get a crosswalk first, so that all kids who live within a mile of the school can have the option of traveling safely by bike or foot.
“If we can provide some equity there then we’re able to build in more incentives for all of our kids to walk and bike,” Porter said.
She is currently working with Anderson, a group of parents from Hollin Meadows, and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to get a Safe Routes approved crosswalk.
For this year’s bike-to-school day in May 2014, Smallwood said FCPS is expecting 36 schools to participate.
With parents acting as champions and a strong walk and bike to school culture in Fairfax, the number of students walking and biking to school is likely to continue growing.
Webinar: How and Why to Be a Safe Routes to School Policy Advocate
Wolfie’s Bike Train Featured on Nickelodeon
Washington Post: In Vienna, biking to school gains momentum
Vienna wins the Vienna v. Reston Walk to School Day Challenge
Virginia’s Department of Transportation Safe Routes to School Program
Virginia Safe Routes to School Five-Year Strategic Plan 2012-2017
FABB Blog Letter from the FC Board of Supervisors
Letter from FCPS to the FC Board of Supervisors
FABB Safe Routes to School Resources
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