Pedestrian, bike advocates gather to discuss safe routes for students

08/16/2013 12:00 AM

08/16/2013 10:31 AM

Pedestrian advocate Terry Preston calls them the "Great Wall of China for parents."

Sacramento area streets, built in the post-World War II housing boom, were designed wide to handle fast-paced traffic, said Preston, coordinator of WALKSacramento.

Those qualities, once desirable, now make the streets appear a nearly insurmountable barrier in the eyes of parents, who might otherwise allow their children to walk or bike to school. Preston said in his own Natomas neighborhood, it isn't uncommon for parents to drive children to school – even when their house is only four blocks from campus.

"Someone will say, 'I don't mind my child walking to school, but they can't get across that high-speed, six-lane road,' " Preston said. "That's one of the biggest challenges we find: the way that we designed our roads."

More than 600 community leaders gathered in Sacramento at the Sheraton Grand Hotel this week to attend a conference dedicated to increasing the number of children who bike and walk to school. Organizers touted the many benefits to ditching the morning car ride: curbing obesity, reducing greenhouse emissions, improving academic performance and increasing self-sufficiency.

They also, however, acknowledged real challenges that prevent children from walking to school.

A main goal of the conference was to give participants the tools to resolve barriers that exist in their communities, according to Deb Hubsmith, director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, which sponsored the conference.

"We want people to leave, and to use all the tools that they've gained here to make a difference locally," Hubsmith said. "Then, we'd like to hear their stories so ... (we) can share the best practices."

Hubsmith listed some of the practices already in the movement's arsenal.

"Walking maps" created by community leaders allow parents to see the most efficient and safe way to get to school.

With "walking school buses," a parent will lead a group of students to school, creating a potentially safer journey. And through "walking audits," community members help identify parts of a neighborhood where infrastructure improvements need to be made.

The Safe Routes to School National Partnership holds the conference every two years. Local Government Commission, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, won a bid to host the conference this year. Hosting the event in California's capital has historical significance, Hubsmith said.

In 1999, the state was the first in the nation to approve legislation setting aside a portion of its federal transportation safety funds for new sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes and other safety features near schools.

The legislation helped inspire the federal Safe Routes to School program in 2005, under which states are required to spend a share of transportation money on similar purposes.

Before the conference's keynote luncheon, participants celebrated that an online petition to install a traffic signal at the intersection of Fruitridge Road and 58th Street in Sacramento reached 1,000 signatures.

In January 2012, Michelle Murigi, a 16-year-old West Campus High School student, died after being struck by a car as she crossed at an intersection near the school.

The cost of a traffic signal is the main barrier to its purchase and installation by the city of Sacramento, according to city spokeswoman Linda Tucker. Typically, the city has only enough funds in its budget to purchase one traffic signal each year, she said.

While developers contribute to signals in new neighborhoods, the intersection at Fruitridge and 58th is in an established area and does not have that source of funding.

Tucker said a signal there would likely cost $400,000 for design and installation. She added that the city still has the traffic signal "on its radar" and recognizes that the signal is "important to the community to address."

At the conference, participants also built 21 bikes with the help of area mechanics. They gave the bikes, along with six others donated by the Sacramento Police Department, to three nonprofit organizations Thursday at the end of the three-day event.

Children's Receiving Home of Sacramento, Safe Routes to School Alameda County and Loaves & Fishes Mustard Seed School each received nine bikes, along with locks and helmets.

"These kids really need these bikes," said Shani Alford of the Local Government Commission, which organized the charitable bike build. "It is probably one of their only ways of getting around, not just to school, but to the park or to the grocery store. I think this is going to be a great thing for them."

Call The Bee's Kurt Chirbas, (916) 321-1030.

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