Arizona bicyclists might notice a younger demographic pedaling down their lanes.
Schools throughout the state are helping children learn to ride to school through the federal National Safe Routes to School program, started in 2005. Through 2012, the federal funding provided for 28 safe route projects in 19 Arizona cities. Since 2013, about $1.4 million has been awarded for more programs, and Phoenix has $342,000 to spend this year on school programs.
“A broad goal for the Safe Routes to School campaign is for students and families to experience walking and biking as a safe and fun way to travel to and from school, and to choose to travel on foot or bike on a regular basis,” said Sarah Prasek, Living Streets Alliance’s Program Manager for the safe routes program in Tucson.
Eric Post, president of the Greater Arizona Bicycling Association, sees the program as beneficial in helping students learn safe riding techniques and traffic rules since they are years away from taking a driver’s exam.
“Tragic situations have occurred here in Tucson because young bicycle riders did not know how to interact with traffic,” Post said. “These kinds of collisions and crashes are preventable with training and technique and knowledge.”
The Living Streets Alliance oversaw four pilot schools within Tucson Unified and Flowing Wells School Districts (Blenman, Peter Howell, Kellond and Laguna Elementary) this past school year.
“We have actually had more kids bike to school this year than we’ve had in the past,” said Jacqueline Camacho, principal at Laguna Elementary.
Students at Laguna Elementary receive tags that are marked for each day they ride to school, earning such prizes as coloring books, school supplies, soccer balls and Wiffle ball sets. Staff members also go to neighborhoods to meet with students and parents so they can learn to bike safely.
“Our students, parents and staff have been excited about the changes that are taking place as a result of Safe Routes,” said Jaquetta Alexander, principal of Peter Howell Elementary.
The Living Streets Alliance hosted a bike repair event at Peter Howell Elementary in April, assisting about 25 riders. Bike mechanics helped students replace tires, seats and brakes. The students also received free helmets, locks, lights and bike maps.
Lita Black, a mother of three at Peter Howell Elementary, said she looks forward to the events because her kids can get help on maintaining their bikes.
“They need to stay active. It’s one of the fundamental things of learning to play,” Black said.
John Lupo, another parent who attended the event, had a similar response. “It was great hearing about this program,” he said. “I was doing all of this on my own, and so being a single parent, this is a blessing.”
At Blenman Elementary, staff member Miles Warrior said that it’s been difficult to get some parents on board for the program. The biggest struggle, he said, is encouraging parents to bicycle with their kids to school.
Armando Guillen, another parent of a Peter Howell Elementary student, said he worries about kids biking through neighborhoods, but the benefits outweigh the risks.
“He couldn’t wait to get his permission slip signed,” said Guillen, as he watched his son ride his bike.
Living Streets Alliance also put on the ApRoll Bike & Walk to School Challenge as a Safe Routes to School event in April, where students at 17 participating schools throughout Pima County received card punches for each day they walked or biked to school for a week. At the end of the week, they turned in their cards for prizes.
“It’s a constant way to change behavior and influence walking and biking at such a young age,” Prasek said.
Prasek plans to continue the safe routes campaign into the next school year and will add two additional pilot schools and expand the types of projects in Tucson. One of the schools, Los Amigos Technology Academy of Sunnyside Unified School District, has been selected so far.
In Maricopa County, schools have submitted applications for safe routes programs in the next school year and are awaiting approval by the Maricopa Association of Governments.
Three schools, Eagle College Preparatory School, Clovis Campbell Elementary and Linda Loma Elementary participated in safe routes programs during the past school year. Each school hosted bike rodeo events, where students learned safety tips while riding their way through obstacle courses and races.
Ryan Foley is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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