New Mexico Village Finds Safe Routes, Sense of Community Along Acequias

In Corrales, New Mexico, traffic related to elementary school student drop-offs and pick-ups had gotten so bad that in April 2005 the village held a special council meeting to discuss the subject.

The litany of problems was crushing. Upwards of 250 vehicles would arrive at Corrales Elementary each day to drop-off and pick-up children. These vehicles overwhelmed the school zone, blocked the shoulder for pedestrians, blocked the road for through traffic, blocked neighbors’ driveways, and led to prohibited pick-ups and drop-offs in the parking lots of nearby businesses.

The congestion also led to numerous traffic violations by other drivers: speeding on side roads, passing on the shoulder, failure to stop at stop signs, failure to stop at crosswalks; 87 ticketed violations in a four-month period. Drivers using side roads near the school to avoid traffic on Corrales Road nearly collided with walking children on several occasions.

The local roads didn’t have marked shoulders or curbs, nevermind sidewalks. More than 200 students lived within a mile of the school, making them ineligible for bus transportation. But their parents didn’t feel like the streets were safe enough for their children to walk or bike; less than five percent of them—about 25 kids—did, feeding into the cycle of more vehicles on the roads.

By 2007 the situation had not improved much, if at all. A parent volunteer involved in a traffic survey over the course of a full week wrote:

“We have become desensitized as a group of people, parents and commuters. The ugly reality of this week-long task was stressful and shocking. All immediate areas of school property to include the school zone on Corrales Road are in a state of semi-controlled chaos.”

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It’s hard to believe that a nationally recognized program grew out of that chaos. Turns out one of the assets the community has going for it—the Acequia—helps grow Safe Routes as well as crops.

The Acequia is a system of irrigation ditches brought to New Mexico by Spanish settlers more than 400 years ago. Along with carrying water for crops, the sides of the acequias, known as ditch banks, provide paths for non-motorized travel.

Community leaders identified the ditch banks as potential safe routes to school. Then it became a question of making it happen. That it did happen, and that Corrales received special recognition in the competition for the 2012 James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award, is largely due to the work of a handful of leaders and a community of volunteers.

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A quick look at the map of Corrales will tell you a lot about the village’s school transportation issues. Nestled into a bend on the west side of the Rio Grande, this agricultural community of just over 8,000 people on ten-and-a-half square miles is hemmed in by Albuquerque to the south and sprawling Rio Rancho to the west and north.

Most traffic in the village is funneled onto one road, state highway 448, a.k.a. Corrales Road. All three of the village’s schools are on the road, Sandia Elementary on the north side of the village, Corrales Elementary in the center, and Cottonwood Montessori on the south side.

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Walking and cycling advocates on the Corrales Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Commission had begun bringing Safe Routes to School to the village before the April 2005 community meeting—even before there was a federally funded Safe Routes program.

Following up on the Safe Routes pilot projects in Boston, Massachusetts, and Marin County, California, in 2000, the Corrales group began by sending student travel surveys home with all 564 Corrales Elementary students in November 2004.

Half of those were returned, with many parents writing passionately about the concerns they had for their children’s safety on the streets of Corrales, advisory group member Sandi Hoover told the local Corrales Comment newspaper at the time.

The April 2005 community meeting followed, and then plans to participate in National Walk to School Day in October 2006. With at least 130 Corrales Elementary and Cottonwood Montessori students participating, organizers Michelle Keleher, a parent, Elena Kayak, a cycling advocate on the village’s ped-bike commission, and Sayre Gerhart,  a Village Councillor, seized on the momentum by making Walk-N-Roll to School a monthly event.

The organizers’ main concern was finding the safest possible routes to school. The solution: along the ditch banks of the acequias running nearby and parallel to busy Corrales Road. Identifying the ditch banks had the side benefit of bringing the recreational and active transportation possibilities of the acequias to the fore.

“It really is easy and enjoyable to get around on your bike in the village along the acequias,” Keleher told the Corrales Comment in 2006.

The use of the acequias for Safe Routes rekindled a long-standing but dormant effort to develop a Trails Master Plan for the community. That plan has since been completed and accepted by the Village Council, with Safe Routes to School an integral component.

Gerhart continued on in 2007, writing a successful proposal to earn Corrales’ first Safe Routes funding, $15,000 to develop a Safe Routes to School Action Plan. For its first step the Village Council appointed a Safe Routes to School Committee that immediately met with school principals to set a schedule of walk and bike to school days once a month throughout the school year.

Walk-N-Roll to School Day continued for several years while SRTS planning in the village stayed on track. In 2009 the Safe Routes committee had developed an action plan that identified more than two dozen issues to resolve to make it safe for students to walk and bike to school. In 2010, the Safe Routes committee submitted a request for $250,000 in SRTS infrastructure funding and $25,000 for educational and encouragement activities.

The infrastructure request was not approved due to rights-of-way issues for the proposed projects. The $25,000 non-infrastructure grant was approved, and the Safe Routes committee used the funds to hire Laura Montoya as “co-champion.”

Hired for just the 2011-12 school year, Montoya’s tenure marked an explosion in SRTS activity in Corrales.

“The early leaders—Elena Kayak, Sayre Gerhart, Nancy Kimball (a Corrales Elementary math teacher and Safe Routes committee chair), Moe Hickey (administrator at Cottonwood Montessori) and others were so important,” Montoya said, “but they all had other jobs to do. Their vision was for children to walk to school every day like they did when they were young, and it was my job to expand on their vision.”

“When I started we were doing Walk-N-Roll once a month. It was so much fun, and I believed there was room for growth. We grew the program to every Friday for a couple of months and realized we had enough participants and volunteers to do it twice a week on Thursdays and Fridays. We later started an afterschool Walk-N-Roll to the library every Wednesday.”

Accelerating from walking and rolling once a month to once, then twice, then three times a week wasn’t a totally smooth transition, Montoya said:

“At first I got some push-back about doing once a week. ‘We can’t do it,’ some people said. We moved up gradually, and people started to change their routine. We got parents in the habit, and the students reminded the parents. Once we started developing a pattern it worked out pretty amazingly. Once there was ownership to the program and commitment to our youth, the program expanded dramatically.”

The people Montoya got into it were volunteers from the community. Not just parents, but older, retired folks. People with a commitment to improving the community. People in the Kiwanis Club.

“Having my office in town hall really helped a lot, connecting me to village officials and leaders.” Montoya recalled. “The mayor, Phil Gasteyer, was a big supporter. He would bike on one of our routes. I asked dear friends, former Commissioner Donnie Leonard and State Senator John Sapien, for guidance. They advised me to speak to the Corrales Kiwanis Club and invited me to their meeting.”

“The Kiwanis are very active in Corrales and trusted by their community. Many Kiwanis were eager to volunteer. Since the relationship began, they're there every Thursday and Friday morning.  The Kiwanis were key participants to expanding the program. They assisted us in expanding to every day during school testing for the last two years.”

The expansion also included outreach to local businesses which began donating incentives and coupons to students who walk and bike to school. Students track their walking and biking on punch cards and can earn points toward incentives like passes to the local swimming pool and movie theater. Every classroom in Corrales Elementary now keeps a walking and biking chart to track participation. At the end of each month the classroom with the highest participation rate wins a pizza party.

"The students are also learning leadership skills and developing a close bond with each other," Montoya said.

“When we get together at the drop-off points, the experienced walkers and bikers tell new students the expectations, and the students are held accountable for following the rules. Every day we have a group leader, and a different child is a leader each day, whether a fifth-grader or a kindergartener. Along the way they tell stories, play “I Spy,” have spelling quizzes, do math exercises. The children love it, it’s so much fun! And they’re developing camaraderie with each other, which I’m hoping will continue when they move up to middle school and high school.”

Funding for Montoya’s position ran out at the end of the 2011-12 school year, by which time approximately 25 percent of Corrales Elementary students were walking and biking to school on a regular basis. While the program has slowed a little since—the Wednesday afterschool Walk-N-Roll has been cut—walking and biking participation is still growing, up to 29 percent of students walking in early 2013, including on non-Walk-N-Roll days.

The heart of the program, though, according to Montoya, is the relationships made among the students and volunteers along the ditch banks on the way to school.

“For me it’s about community,” Montoya said. “We’re closing the gap between the older residents and our youth. They have amazing conversations on the way to school. There’s often a dynamic at play between children and older folks where they don’t listen to one another, they don’t connect. The consistency of our program, the same volunteers coming out for every Walk-N-Roll day, allows that dynamic to be different, for both to be heard.”

The program’s success caught the attention of the National Center for Safe Routes to School. The James L. Oberstar Award is given out annually by a multi-organization panel of reviewers coordinated by the National Center to recognize successful SRTS programs. Competition for the award is always fierce given the great work happening all over the country, but Corrales was given special recognition for all their SRTS efforts.

In a letter of support to Corrales’ Oberstar application, State Senator John Sapien aptly summed the success of the program.

“As a parent, Kiwanian, Corrales resident and State Senator, I have seen this program enable people to come together and share fellowship. The program’s expansion has showed that there are many people in our community who want to step up and give back to their community, and SRTS is a key component to allowing that function. The strength of communication between our students, parents, school, village staff and community leaders has grown tremendously in this effort to provide the service to our students and parents. Safe Routes to School developed in the Village of Corrales is a true example of ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’”

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