Local initiative examines ways to encourage safe routes to school for students
WILLMAR -- It's 2:30 on the dot and students at the Willmar Middle School are streaming out the doors.
On the north side of the building, where the school buses are queued up, kids who live close enough to walk are headed across the street and toward home -- only there are no crosswalks, and one of the sidewalks stops several feet short of the intersection.
At the school's south entrance, a long procession of cars, SUVs and minivans idles in line as parents wait to pick up their kids.
Willmar Police Officer Tony LaPatka, surveying the scene, calls it "15 minutes of mayhem."
"Nobody likes to exercise," he said.
The half-dozen adults who participated last week in a Kandiyohi County Public Health workshop on community walkability nod at LaPatka's comments and scribble notes as they ob-serve rush hour at the middle school. Later, back in the classroom, it's time for the group to analyze and suggest solutions.
Crosswalks, one person offered. A safer way for students on bikes and on foot to cross busy Willmar Avenue at the south edge of the middle school, suggested someone else.
Lisa Bender, active transportation coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Health and one of the workshop leaders, wrote down everyone's comments on a large map of the area.
"This whole area really needs sidewalks," she said, pointing to the area north of the school, "I would say there's high walking potential in this area but obviously there are issues to address."
Organizers with Kandiyohi County Public Health hope the one-day audit, and other similar activities, will help galvanize a community conversation about how to encourage more time on foot and less time in the car.
"It doesn't take much, if you see it, to get energy for it," said Kellie Prentice, who coordinates the cardiac rehabilitation program at Rice Memorial Hospital.
Walking has dwindled as an American lifestyle behavior, Bender said. Although surveys indicate most Minnesotans value having access to walking and biking trails, many people simply don't walk enough, she said.
Studies of driving behavior have found that at least 50 percent of the trips made in the car are for distances less than three miles, Bender said.
Nowhere has the gap widened more than in the number of children who walk to school. Forty years ago, half of youngsters walked or rode their bikes to school; today it's closer to 15 percent, Bender said.
Experts agree that turning this around will likely require strategies on many fronts: infrastructure such as sidewalks, bike paths and safe pedestrian crossings, local land use policies that help foster a pedestrian-friendly mix of connections and destinations, and programs that ensure walking and biking trails receive regular use.
The Mid-Minnesota Development Commission is in the preliminary stages of an assessment that will identify local environments that support walking, said Donn Winckler, executive director of the regional agency.
"The system now is full of gaps," he said.
Last week's audit of the neighborhood around the Willmar Middle School revealed where some of the immediate challenges might lie.
For instance, youngsters who live in the area west of First Street are close enough to walk -- but must contend with crossing one of the busiest commercial streets in town. "It's dangerous to cross First Street no matter where you do it," said Marilee Dorn, crime prevention and community policing coordinator with the Willmar Police Department.
Traffic also is a hazard for children who live in the neighborhood south of Willmar Avenue, workshop participants pointed out. And although the neighborhood north of the middle school is mostly residential and can be reached without crossing a high-traffic street, Dorn said it also has the highest number of police service calls.
The audit suggested opportunities as well. Workshop participants said reaching out to parents and school administrators is an important next step, along with organizing activities such as neighborhood walking clubs or a one-time "Walk to School" day.
If families can be sold on the benefits of walking to school, it can be a successful starting point for building broader community interest, Bender said.
"Once the kids get into this, they really start becoming the drivers of safe routes to school," she said. "It becomes something that's fun and exciting for the kids. ... It becomes more of the norm."