“Go Play” has new meaning in Billings, Montana. In 2004, the city with a population of 100,000 and with 23 elementary schools had been designated the least safe city for pedestrians in Montana by the Mean Streets Surface Transportation Policy Project.
In September 2008, Billings received bronze level status as a bicycle-friendly city from the American League of Bicyclists, thanks to its “Go Play” community awareness campaign to encourage children and their families to walk and bicycle safely to schools.
Community health advocate and parent Kathy Aragon said that Billings is fortunate because many students live close enough to walk and bicycle to school, and some neighborhoods have nearby bike paths and trails that provide direct routes to school without crossing major roadways. The “Go Play Billings Trails” program seeks to build upon that strength.
“It’s all about community awareness,” Aragon said. “We have an enormous amount of collaboration.”
Before all the pieces of the program came together, the Yellowstone City-County Health Department surveyed all the elementary schools using the SRTS Parent and Caregiver Survey on Walking and Bicycling to measure attitudes and barriers affecting walking and bicycling to school. Results indicated 804 of the 2,633 respondents walked or bicycled to school, approximately 31 percent. Surveyed parents reported concerns about motorist behavior and awareness of children walking and bicycling to school. With enhanced community education, Aragon expects the number of students walking and bicycling to school to increase, and along with it, community knowledge about safety and opportunities for walking and bicycling.
The “Go Play Billings Trails” program is a non-infrastructure program that began when St. Vincent Healthcare donated $5,000 in 2006, which enabled students from Montana State University-Billings to develop a brochure of information to encourage safe walking and bicycling in Billings. Sarah Keller, assistant professor in the Communication and Theater Department at MSU-B, co-directed the effort with Aragon, who is Health and Safety Chairperson for the Highland Elementary School PTA. The “Go Play Billings Trails” campaign delineates trails and bike paths throughout the city and highlights economic, safety and health aspects of walking and bicycling.
In March 2007, Aragon and Yellowstone County received a $10,000 SRTS grant from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) to fund events, as well as billboards that are located near schools. Billings held the 6-mile-long Magic City Trail Trek, in late spring 2007, and in the fall Aragon organized Saturday Live Fun Run/Walk, which is a two-mile long School District fundraiser. At each event, volunteers distributed information about safe walking and bicycling to children and parents.
This non-infrastructure program complements a $25,000 SRTS infrastructure grant that Billings received from the MDT’s state SRTS program in 2007 for the Chandelier Crossing for children going to Arrowhead Elementary School. The crossing was built as part of the Big Ditch Trail, Phase 2, according to Darlene Tussing, Alternate Modes Coordinator for the City-County Planning Office. The sidewalk connected a residential area to a bike trail, which provided direct access to Arrowhead Elementary for students.
Many of Billings’ community leaders and organizations share a desire to promote healthy, safe alternatives to vehicles when possible. For example, Billings Public Schools created a School Health Advisory Committee that has included SRTS programs in its physical activity recommendations for Billings public schools. Yellowstone City-County Health Department is working on a “Healthy Places” initiative and partnering with two hospitals and the city to promote the Trail Trek event in cooperation with MSU-B. In addition, the trail advocacy organization BikeNet (www.bikenet.org) is a partner in the Trail Trek event and a community supporter of “Go Play.” Aragon is a member of Billings Action for Healthy Kids, a group with a longstanding commitment to helping Billings improve health through nutrition and fitness. Team members include a variety of health and education advocates. Two of the members write weekly columns for the local newspaper. They help promote International Walk to School Day in the fall, and they promote bicycling and walking safety through their own programs, such as Big Sky State Games, which has a three-month fitness program in which many school staff and students participate.
The Billings Clinic donated $200 to help with the Trail Trek, and for years, area physicians have donated money to provide helmets for school-based helmet programs. The Think First program is a joint hospital collaborative that provides low cost helmets at both the Trail Trek and Saturday Live Fun Run. The Highland Elementary School librarian held a twomonth long unit on bicycle safety, complete with “celebrities” such as the mayor and a bicycle-riding law enforcement officer reading bicycle-related books. Aragon makes sure that SRTS information is available at the spring Child Safety Fair, YMCA’s Healthy Kids Day and various PTA gatherings including the statewide PTA gathering that was held in Billings in fall 2007.
Aragon estimated that in the first year, 300 participants enjoyed the Trail Trek and approximately 200 people participated in the fall Fun Run/Walk. Volunteers from Highland Elementary as well as local running, bicycling and trail groups work to make the events operate smoothly. The two annual “Go Play” events doubled participation in two years, and during International Walk to School week, one class at Highland Elementary School reported a walk/bike rate of 84 percent. Twenty-three percent of children in Yellowstone County walk or bicycle to school. International Walk to School was celebrated by 100 percent of neighborhood schools in the city core. Future planned projects include a $25,000 SRTS infrastructure grant from MDT that will make the sidewalks at Highland Elementary contiguous, connecting a rear pedestrian-only entrance to the school. In addition, a $49,495 grant from MDT was awarded to McKinley Elementary for “bulb outs’ and other safety improvements at intersections. Aragon also plans to seek funds that will provide minigrants to enable all 23 elementary schools in Billings to hold International Walk to School Day events. Additionally, the city of Billings has applied for a SRTS grant to create a districtwide safety plan.
Aragon believes that by educating students, parents and other community members and increasing their participation in walking and bicycling, they will be more aware of pedestrians and bicyclists, and that awareness will increase safety for everyone.
Health and Safety Chairperson
Highland Elementary School PTA