This morning, 7-year-old Veronica Fritz will be chauffeured to school like she is most mornings, but not in the manner one might expect. There will be no maneuvering in sluggish traffic as breakfast is eaten while seat belts are fastened. She will be accompanied to Ridgeway Elementary School with her friends on foot, by her mother, Dana Fritz, as part of the Walking School Bus Program.
“I get to walk and talk with my friends, and see things that I don’t get to see in my house like animals and trees and houses and my school,” said Veronica, who participates in the program four days a week. “Walking is definitely better than driving.”
Veronica is one of a growing number of Columbia elementary school students who are getting involved in a more active lifestyle by walking to school. Today she is one of more than 1,000 children taking part in school-sponsored walking activities as part of Bike, Walk and Wheel Week.
Ten breakfast stations around downtown will fuel up commuters and students from 7 to 9 a.m. as they abandon their cars to get moving under their own steam.
“We hope to see a good proportion of the 3,300 registered participants out there,” said Ian Thomas, PedNet executive director.
Bike, Walk and Wheel Week regulars and those hoping to partake in the free breakfast are not required to register in advance, but they should arrive early if they are hoping for something sugary and sweet because more children will be participating than ever.
Seventeen schools are taking part in Bike, Walk and Wheel Week by incorporating active travel into their schedules. At Field Elementary School, students will head out on a schoolwide walk to a special breakfast station set up for them by Columbia College.
The “Walk to School” days sponsored by PedNet were the impetus for the Walking School Bus Program, which trains parents and volunteers to chaperone children on designated safe routes to school. As part of the program, children are given a road safety course to prepare them to interact with cars and cyclists. By getting more schools involved this year through Bike, Walk and Wheel Week, organizers hope to expand the Walking School Bus Program this fall.
“We make it easy for parents,” said Margy Tonnies, Walking School Bus coordinator and participant. “It makes the mornings more relaxed because we pick the kids up at the end of the block or in front of the house.”
The program has the added benefit of instilling a sense of independence in children while relieving parents’ anxiety about community safety.
“Once the parents get out there and walk with the kids and see what the neighborhood and the route is like, they feel more comfortable letting the kids walk home unsupervised,” Thomas said. “They know it is safe, and they know their kids know how to be safe on the roads.”
Dana Fritz, the parent organizer of the Ridgeway Elementary School Walking School Bus Program, got involved three years ago when her three children participated in PedNet-sponsored Walk to School days.
“The PedNet walks were a fun, simple way to get exercise and spend time with the kids,” Fritz said. “I did not realize how I was raising my kids to be less pedestrian-oriented than I was as a kid by relying on the car to do our commuting.”
Fritz appreciates the traffic safety skills it has provided her kids.
“When we traveled to bigger cities, I realized that my kids didn’t know things like looking behind yourself at a four-way stop, things I took for granted,” she said.
With summer fast approaching, parents who are interested in getting their kids educated about road safety can enroll them in “Bike Pro,” a four-lesson bicycle proficiency program for children ages 10 to 14. The lessons will be offered in conjunction with the Parks and Recreation Department and Walt’s Wilderness, Bicycle and Fitness Co. Children will learn how to share the road.
“What the PedNet Coalition does with education and enthusiasm is just as important as the infrastructure being built for the project,” Thomas said. “PedNet is about teaching people how to be safe on the roads, trails and pathways, and Bike, Walk and Wheel Week emphasizes the need for this kind of education. New trails and pathways aren’t useful unless people know how to use them and feel comfortable doing so.”