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If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember walking or biking to school every day. As recently as 1969, more than half of all U.S. students walked or biked to get to school each morning. Now that percentage is less than 15 percent, and in some areas of the country it is against local laws or school district policies (students have to take the bus or be driven to school by their parents).

That’s why today, Wednesday, Oct. 6, is so important. Today is International Walk (or Bike) to School Day, and schools all over Alaska, the United States and in the rest of the world are promoting students walking or biking to school.

Local schools will hold a variety of promotions, including walking school buses (where students walk to school together with parents as a group), bike trains and the like. In addition to presentations on biking and walking safety, schools will distribute reflectives and other safety equipment. They also might offer door prizes to students who walk or bike to school, or there might be a special breakfast or lunch. Parents can get involved by participating in walkability studies around their local schools to see what barriers and safety issues need to be addressed to get more students walking or biking.

Why is it so important to get kids walking and biking to school again? For one, there has been a sharp rise in childhood obesity and that has resulted in more cases of Type 2 diabetes (formerly called adult-onset diabetes) appearing in teenagers and even young children. Besides helping improve our children’s health, getting them walking and biking helps them reconnect to our communities and the land. There also is improved air quality, since fewer students rely on the bus or cars to get to school, and routes to school tend to be safer when more students walk or bike to school. One of the biggest issues is changing the culture to promote walking and biking to school, and according to this article in Grist, that starts with the parents.

The International Walk (or Bike) To School Day site for the U.S. lists schools in Anchorage, Wasilla, Cordova, Seward and Tok as places in Alaska with events scheduled today, and there are many more events that aren’t posted on the site. Some events are tied in with education projects, such as one as Anchorage’s Kasuun Elementary School called “Exercise your right to read,” where students are trying to walk/bike 26 miles over a period of time and read 26 minutes a day. There also is a statewide School Health and Wellness Institute meeting in Anchorage today, and many of the state’s injury prevention and health promotion workers at the event will go to Scenic Park Elementary School to assist with its program today.

Since today is International Walk (or Bike) to School Day, people may wonder if it’s too late to stage an event. In many communities, they are making this a year-long event and not linking it to just one day. The CDC’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Program has the Kids Walk To School campaign, which includes many of the concepts of International Walk (or Bike) to School Day.

The Safe Routes To School program, which has statewide and national initiatives, promotes International Walk (or Bike) to School Day in Alaska, and it also promotes community design to make walking and biking a year-long event. The program offers tools for parents who want to make their children’s routes to school safer, and it also offers grants to help them promote safe walking and biking to school.

Another good resource is the Safe Kids USA program’s “Safe Kids Walk This Way” initiative, which focuses on injury prevention. The WalkScore.com site is a good resource for checking out the walkability of your neighborhood.

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A winter bicyclist rides down 10th Avenue in Anchorage near the Delaney Park Strip during November 2009

A winter bicyclist rides down 10th Avenue in Anchorage near the Delaney Park Strip during November 2009

One of the choice phrases used to describe the level of bicycle and pedestrian friendliness a community has is “built environment.” In other words having a good built environment means there are nice sidewalks for pedestrians, safe bike lanes for cyclists, and good, interesting places within walking and biking distance for most people. Some communities have an excellent built environment for walking and biking, until winter comes and the snow falls. Then all that bicycle and pedestrian friendliness goes away for 6-8 months until the snow melts.

To be a true bicycle and pedestrian friendly community, your community plan must include adequate snow clearance, which was a topic of a conference on winter walking and biking this past December in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.

A snow berm piled high on the sidewalk at the corner of Minnesota Boulevard and 26th (across from Anchorage's Romig Middle School) on Feb. 12, 2010 (Photo courtesy of Jim Vorderstrasse)

A snow berm piled high on the sidewalk at the corner of Minnesota Boulevard and 26th (across from Anchorage's Romig Middle School) on Feb. 12, 2010 (Photo courtesy of Jim Vorderstrasse)

While it’s sometimes not economically feasible to plow every walkway in a community, the main downtown core, areas near schools, shopping centers, hospitals and other key buildings need to be cleared as a minimum. Some communities say one reason they don’t plow the sidewalks in winter is because people don’t walk, but it’s usually the opposite — people don’t walk because the sidewalks haven’t been cleared. Not clearing at least a bare minimum of key sidewalks is hard on our elders who want to exercise for fitness, it makes things difficult on our children who want to walk to school, and having sidewalks full of snow makes it more dangerous to travel in the winter because sometimes you have to step into the roadways to keep from post-holing through knee- and thigh-deep snow.

Sometimes the sidewalk or bike lane becomes a convenient dumping spot for the snowplows, like what happened with the four-foot-high berm of snow in the photo next to the upper part of this paragraph. Also, these high berms make it more difficult for motorists to see pedestrians during a time when visibility already is low. When the plows dumped all the snow into the sidewalks and roads after a big Thanksgiving snowstorm in Anchorage this winter, Raena Schaerer wrote this opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News.

In many communities, coming to grips with how much snow clearance is necessary has been a hot topic of debate. The Winter Cities Institute, an international organization of northern communities, has published a paper, linked below as a PDF file, about how some communities deal with winter snow issues. An October 2007 article in Alaska Business Monthly detailed a plan in Anchorage to add heated sidewalks on heavily traveled downtown streets. You can see more details of where heated sidewalks will be placed on Page 104 of the Anchorage Downtown Comprehensive Plan posted below.

In Anchorage, the far sidewalk in a downtown intersection off Ninth Avenue is cleared while the other side still has snow and ice on it

In Anchorage, the far sidewalk in a downtown intersection off Ninth Avenue is cleared while the other side still has snow and ice on it

Heated sidewalks are an innovative choice for some communities, even though there is some initial cash outlay for them. But sometimes they can pay for themselves because less snow clearing is needed, there are fewer injuries that might result in lawsuits, and heating the sidewalks can be energy efficient if a community routes pipes underneath the sidewalk and the heat from the water in the pipes also is used to heat the sidewalk. But many communities haven’t even considered heated sidewalks.

When it comes to clearing snow in most communities, the method is to rely on the local residents and merchants to clear the snow. Snowy sidewalks could cost homeowners a fine in Anchorage, the Sitka General Code includes a section requiring snow and ice removal by merchants in downtown Sitka. Unfortunately, the code in Sitka is rarely enforced and in recent years there have been more businesses that close for the winter so their sidewalks don’t get cleared. This winter, the City and Borough of Sitka did put a sidewalk snow-clearing contract out for bid, but there was so little snow in Sitka this winter the results weren’t obvious.

The SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) uses a Kubota tractor, about the size of an ATV, with a blade in the front and a sand-spreader in the back to clear the sidewalks on its Sitka campus that covers about a square mile. A downtown merchant association can use a similar set-up to easily clear downtown sidewalks for shoppers, without the gaps caused by an absentee landlord or a vacant lot.

The Rebuilding Place in Urban Space blog from Washington, D.C., made some interesting observations about snowy sidewalks during this winter’s heavy snows in the D.C. area. The Iowa Law Blog ran an article in December 2008 about its law for clearing sidewalks of snow so it’s easier for walkers to get around.

In extremely harsh climates, the Winter Cities Institute says some communities even link their buildings with skywalks, tunnels and other connections so pedestrians don’t have to stray outside when they shop or take care of other errands. In other communities, such as Anchorage, they build an elaborate system of multi-use trails so people can walk, run, ski or bike where they need to go. Just because it’s winter it doesn’t mean a community has to lose its bicycle and pedestrian friendliness.

Pedestrian Mobility in Winter paper by Patrick Campbell of the Winter Cities Institute

Chapter 6 of the Anchorage Comprehensive Downtown Plan (Page 104 has information on heated sidewalks)

Winter runners and a cyclist cross L Street in Anchorage in November 2009

Winter runners and a cyclist cross L Street in Anchorage in November 2009

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One of the problems with being a cyclist or pedestrian in Alaska is we have long, dark winter months. Not only is it dark, which makes cyclists and pedestrians harder to see than they are during the summer, but many Alaska drivers don’t scrape the frost off their windshields the way they should and that also makes it harder to see cyclists and pedestrians.

As part of its pursuit of a Bicycle Friendly Community designation from the League of American Bicyclists, the Sitka Bicycle Friendly Community Coalition started tracking how many cyclists used headlights and taillights during times of low visibility. During October and November 2008 and again the same months in 2009, several Sitkans completed forms describing what safeguards Sitka cyclists used to “Be Safe, Be Seen,” a local variation of a statewide campaign.

Sitka’s “Be Safe, Be Seen” program also includes an education component with radio PSAs (scroll down for PSAs) to remind cyclists and pedestrians to be visible during the winter. There also were health educators and injury prevention specialists who gave presentations at local schools. In addition, there was an encouragement component where local organizations donated more than $2,000 to by reflective tape and lights to give to local schoolchildren. And the Sitka Police Department increased enforcement of cyclists who used unsafe cycling practices that violate Sitka General Code (see Title 11.64 for pedestrians, 11.68 for bicycles, and 11.70 for Sitka’s youth helmet ordinance) or Alaska Administrative Code (see Title 13, Chapter 2, Sections 150-195 for pedestrians and Sections 385-420 for bicycles)

In 2008, just 32 percent of Sitka cyclists used a white headlight when they rode. This year, 60 percent were using headlights. Last year, 36 percent of Sitka cyclists had a red taillight and this year it was up to 57 percent. The percentage of wrong-way cyclists (those riding on the left, facing traffic) dropped from 11 percent to 6 percent. More details about the surveys can be found in this thank-you letter sent to local media outlets.

“The positive numbers we have seen is a result of using the recommended public health strategy that includes: education, encouragement and enforcement,” said Doug Osborne, a health educator with the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) and member of the Sitka Bicycle Friendly Community Coalition. “We are very grateful to all the groups and individuals who have helped with one of these three elements.”

While the surveys focused on cyclists, many of the “Be Safe, Be Seen” elements also apply to pedestrians. In good weather, the average driver needs 260 feet in order to come to a complete stop from 60 mph. A person wearing black or blue clothing isn’t seen until 55 feet away, while red is seen from 80 feet away, yellow is seen from 120 feet, white is seen from 200 feet, and someone wearing reflectors is seen from 500 feet away. The person wearing reflectors is the only person who gives a driver time enough to stop. Cyclists and pedestrians are encouraged to use reflective vests, reflective arm or leg bands, put reflective tape on their jackets, wear reflective hats, etc., to make sure they are visible to drivers.

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tribalschoolzonesafetyvideobox

Native Americans have the highest rates of pedestrian injury and death of any group in the United States. In fact, adult pedestrian death rates for Native Americans are almost 3.5 times that of the general population. For Native American children, the pedestrian death rate is almost four times that of the overall population of the United States.

Alaska has 229 federally recognized tribes, about 40 percent of the 562 nationwide, so there are a lot of tribal zones in the state. Because many of Alaska’s tribal zones are in rural areas, we don’t have some of the traffic problems as tribal zones in the Lower 48. The highest pedestrian annual death rates per 100,000 tribal citizens are in the Plains states, with 6.5 deaths per 100,000 compared to 1.4 nationally. Alaska has a death rate of 3.5 per 100,000, which is lower than the top rate but still more than twice the national average.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has released a video, “Tribal School Zone Safety,” designed to teach school kids how to safely walk to school. The DVD, which is free if you order it from the link, also includes a second video that teaches parents, school officials and tribal administrators how to make sure their children’s routes to school are safe for them to walk. The first video features students from several tribal schools around the country as they learn how to check traffic, how to wear reflectives and bright colors for visibility, and why they need to turn off their iPods and cell phones so they can hear what’s going on around them. There also is a tool kit for teachers who want to use the first video in their lesson plans. You can preview the videos and see the tool kit if you go to the link.

Since International Walk (or Bike) to School Day is this Wednesday, Oct. 7, the video is worth watching for both parents and educators. Click here to learn more about the Alaska Safe Routes To School program, and click here to go to the National Center for Safe Routes To School page.

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iwalk2-vert-web

Many adults remember walking or riding their bikes to and from school. How many times do we remember Grandpa telling us about how hard his walk to school was back in the day (“I walked seven miles uphill in six feet of snow each way. You kids have it easy, I tell you.”)?

But over the last couple of decades, fewer kids have been able to walk or bike to school. Now they catch a school bus or are driven to class by their parents, even when they live less than a half-mile away from the school building.

In 1997, the Partnership for a Walkable America sponsored the first National Walk Our Children To School Day in Chicago, modeling it after a program in Great Britain. By 2002, all 50 states and more than 3 million students were participating in International Walk (or Bike) to School Day. This is an event that promotes safer and improved streets and sidewalks, healthy habits and clean air.

There still is time for schools in Alaska to organize their own International Walk (or Bike) to School Day Events. To get started, go to the State of Alaska’s Safe Routes To School site. There should be a list of events scheduled for Alaska schools (if your school isn’t listed, then create and event and register it). You also can go to the National Center for Safe Routes To School site for more information.

Many parents will organize walking school buses (where kids join a group of walkers as it passes their house, with several parents in the mix for safety). Local merchants can donate door prizes that are raffled off to kids who walk or bike to school (reflective arm/leg bands, bike lights, bike helmets, etc., are good prizes). It’s good to have parents involved, because they can note problems along the route, such as a blind corner with no sidewalk for walkers or a house with an aggressive dog. Also, don’t forget to reward safe practices, such as all cyclists should wear bike helmets (Sitka has a mandatory helmet ordinance for youth) and making sure jackets have reflectives so drivers can see the kids.

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