Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

December 5, 2007

NIAGARA COUNTY: Officials want safer, walkable routes to school

By Joyce Miles/milesj@gnnewspaper.com

LOCKPORT — Nationwide, fewer than 15 percent of children walk or ride a bike to school. The rest are bused or driven.

According to a 2004 national consumer survey, it’s not fear of the children falling victim to crime that keeps parents from letting their kids have fresh air and a measure of independence. It’s the fact that school is too far away from home — or parents just don’t trust traffic to yield to their little ones.

The consequence? While vehicle traffic congests school neighborhoods and dirties the air, the kids aren’t getting much-needed exercise.

New York state is aiming to help communities get back to basics with participation in the national Safe Routes To School Partnership. Federal money funneled through the state transportation department will be awarded in communities that pitch plans to make the areas around elementary and middle schools more walker- and biker-friendly.

A state Department of Transportation representative rolled out the basics for interested parties Tuesday at Lockport Town Hall. Among communities that sent representatives were the town, the city, Lockport City School District, the City of Niagara Falls, the villages of Middleport and Barker and the Town of Somerset.

The grant program presents another opportunity for Lockport City School District and its host municipalities to work together on community building, according to district grant writer Rosanna Sandell.

In the program, she sees inspiration — and capital support — for back-to-basics measures that could help change children’s habits, while also making Lockport a more desirable place to live.

“Lockport as a walkable community is a better community,” Sandell said. “This is very exciting to me.”

According to D.O.T. Transportation Analyst Matthew Balling, the Safe Routes to School program will award grants of up to $550,000 next year to schools, municipalities and not-for-profits that pitch construction or educational projects designed to encourage more walking and biking to and from school.

Construction or repair of sidewalks or bike trails on public rights-of-way are one means of doing that; startup funding for law enforcement-driven initiatives is another; and more social/educational approaches, basically the marketing of walking and biking to kids and parents, are yet another.

Balling’s focus predominantly was on construction projects, but a concept adopted in other communities, the “walking school bus,” demonstrates there are less expensive ways to encourage walkability, according to Town of Lockport grant writer Tom Sullivan.

The walking school bus is “driven” by parent volunteers who take turns walking whole groups of kids to and from school. The bus makes stops along a route like a regular bus would, picking up walkers as it goes, and delivering them safely at their destination.

Sullivan furnished a map of the city/town showing most of the kids who attend Roy B. Kelley Elementary and Emmet Belknap Middle schools live within a quarter-mile of their school. Many probably are not walkers now, he said, maybe because a good part of the serviced neighborhood lacks sidewalks.

The obvious suggestion — sidewalk construction — sounds ripe for a grant opportunity, but it’s expensive and maybe not the best solution.

“The funding on this is very limited. It doesn’t go far when you talk infrastructure,” Sullivan said.

Instead, he suggested, the school and municipal partners might be better off looking at low-key solutions: beefed-up signage and traffic control, change of some streets to one-way-traffic only, finding creative ways to sell the walking concept to parents and kids.

“The exciting part of this, in my mind, is children’s health improving. The infrastructure is secondary, I think,” Sullivan said. “If there are (smaller) things we can do to improve conditions ... the real reward will go to our kids.”

Somerset Supervisor Rich Meyers and Barker Police Chief Ross Annable could see a mix of measures improving conditions around Barker Central School. A sidewalk could discourage kids from walking on — or in the middle of — Haight Road on their way to and from the campus, Meyers said, but even flashier speed signage — especially the electronic kind that shows drivers just how far over the posted 20 mph limit they’re going —could help kids be safer, Annable said.

Winning grant applicants will be those who pitch the most persuasive plans to improve safety for walkers/bikers within 2 miles of a school, regardless of population, Balling said.

The competition for grants is expected to be fierce, he added, because the total amount being doled out by D.O.T. in Region 5, $1.8 million, is for four counties: Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus. Applications are due April 1, and awards are to be announced Aug. 1.