Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fairfax finally discussing walking and biking to school

The Safe Routes to School program has been in place since 2005. During that time, over $13 million has been allocated to Virginia for the program, of which about $7 million has been designated for projects. Fairfax County has requested, and received, $17,000, less than 1%. Fairfax is the largest school district in the state, 12th largest in the country, and many kids don't walk to school in part because it isn't safe. In a time of reduced budgets, the county is leaving a great deal of money on the table that could be used to improve biking and walking routes to school.

Bus transportation is provided to all kids living greater than a mile from an elementary school or 1.5 miles from a middle or high school. "Regardless of the distance, transportation will be provided if the transportation office determines that there is no walking route available that does not subject students to unusual hazards." As a result, many children living close to schools are provided bus transportation, some living across the street, because of a lack of safe routes to school.

It seems to have taken a budget crisis for the schools to consider the costs of having to bus so many kids to school. According to today's Post, Students may face an uphill climb: To help cut busing costs, Fairfax officials suggest getting more kids to walk to school:
"The schools do nothing to teach the benefits of walking and biking to school," McKay said. "Somehow we got away from that, because when I went through the schools, they had presentations by police and others talking about the importance of walking and biking to school."

McKay's suggestion that more kids walk also reflects the growing financial tensions between the School Board, which sets school policies and answers mostly to parents, and the Board of Supervisors, which controls school funding and answers mostly to taxpayers. McKay said that one of the biggest complaints he hears from constituents is about the number of half-full school buses they see.
The county needs to get serious about this issue. There are opportunities to obtain funding through the CDC grant program Communities Putting Prevention to Work which encourages communities to fight childhood obesity by implementing Safe Routes to School and other measures to help them develop active lifestyles. The SRTS program needs the support of the county Board of Supervisors and School Board.


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