Parents at Bear Creek Elementary School in Boulder, CO., are leading students and the entire school community into life-changing choices. The Car-Free Commute program at the school, only in its second year, has succeeded in engaging 70 percent of students in walking and bicycling to school consistently throughout the school year.
Bear Creek Elementary is an open enrollment school, which means a percentage of families opt in from outside the neighborhood and do not have school bus service. But 67 percent of students live within two miles of the school. Still, before Safe Routes to School, only 25 percent of students were walking or bicycling to school — most were being driven in the family car.
At the onset of Federal funding a student tally showed 41 percent reported walking or bicycling to school. Since then, increased parent involvement, strong school leadership and a portion of $36,000 shared with two other schools (Casey Middle School in Boulder, and Eldorado K8 in Superior) have helped encourage 70 percent of the school’s 365 students to make walking and bicycling a daily habit. The current SRTS funding was preceded by $73,448 for 6 schools in 2007.
“A parent’s perception is a dominant factor in molding a child’s thinking,” observes Vivian Kennedy, parent volunteer and mother of three. Bear Creek’s SRTS program has effectively informed and encouraged students, who have in turn, helped facilitate parent participation.
“It’s a matter of honor and pride for the students,” says Kennedy. The school’s encouragement programs are moving away from prizes and focusing on innate pride in commuting choices. Through monthly tallies and public recognition, Bear Creek student’s efforts are recognized daily in the classroom and in prominent displays and events throughout the school.
Principal Kent Cruger serves as a role model for his students by hosting the Cruger Cup, a year-long challenge issued by the principal himself to his students to arrive at school every day without a car. At the beginning of each month, Mr. Cruger tries a new form of transportation — he has been seen on a foot-powered scooter, a skateboard and a unicycle, and regularly car pools with other area principals to school district meetings.
“Although this initiative was initially adult-driven, it has been the students who have taken ownership of their own travel choices and inspired the adults around them,” says Cruger. He’s quick to offer examples. When parents of fifth-graders told their children they would need to drive them to school because of all the gear they needed for an overnight school trip, students suggested carpooling and carrying the gear in bike trailers. Or, when three girls needed to arrive early on Tuesdays and Thursdays to attend before-school choir rehearsals, they started their own early version of a walking school bus nicknamed the “Darley Express.” And one student who lives five miles across town uses a combination of two buses and walking to get to school.
“Kids are really inspired by the choices and goals of the adults around them,” says Kennedy. Having Mr. Cruger as a model really gets the students’ attention and challenges them in a fun way.”
The Tour de French, inspired by former Bear Creek teacher Mr. Jay French encourages students and families to record as many Car-Free Commute trips as possible. Each Bear Creek Elementary class forms a team for the Tour de French, and students help their team advance by walking, bicycling or ridesharing. The students keep monthly tracking sheets and win arm bands in different colors for different categories of trips, resembling the “leader jerseys” at the legendary Tour de France.
Bear Creek Elementary students accomplished the school’s goal of “zero cars in the Beak Creek lot” during International Walk to School Day 2008. “The empty parking lot was an astonishing sight — and a testament to how far we’ve come,” says Kennedy. Bear Creek Elementary families are “willing, ready and able to make the Car-Free Commute choice.”
Although the main thrust of the program is now sustaining the achievements through encouragement, prior infrastructure improvements made the path smoother for current students. Landon Hilliard, SRTS Administrator for the Boulder Valley School District, explains that the foot bridge from adjacent Bear Creek Park and surrounding neighborhoods was repaired by the City of Boulder in October 2007. Other infrastructure changes have also been picked up by the City of Boulder through Forestry and Transportation Departments. Boulder Valley School District maintenance funds were used to open the school’s bike corral and fence and buy orange cones. In addition, the city’s Traffic Engineer and Bike-Pedestrian Planner have played an integral role in addressing safety issues brought forward by concerned parents and school staff at two critical street crossings on the way to school. The city of Boulder received $154,000 in infrastructure funds from the Federal SRTS program, through the Colorado Department of Transportation, to retrofit a nearby intersection by Summer 2009.
Walking school buses are a big part of the success of Bear Creek Elementary’s program, allowing those who live farther to meet at a remote location and walk to school on a regular basis. Bear Creek Elementary families have named the walking school buses after catchy public transportation routes (City of Boulder Community Transit Network). The Darley Dart, Vassar Vroom and Sooper Shuttle are “driven” by parent volunteers who wear yellow shirts or vests. Walkers carry yellow balloons, wear bright yellow caps and bleep bells and horns announcing each “bus stop.”
Bear Creek students will also participate in Boulder Valley School District’s initiatives such as a new web site for local SRTS programs, a new bicycle education curriculum known as BLAST (Bike Lesson and Safety Training) to be taught in PE classes, and Safe Routes Walk-Bike maps. “Parent champions are on the ground doing the hard work and they make the program go,” says Hilliard “My office provides supporting services that hopefully will make their work easier, effective and more fun.”
A City of Boulder study conducted during the first year of Bear Creek’s Car-Free Commute program (2007- 2008) showed a 36 percent reduction in cars and corresponding traffic congestion. During the program’s second year, students accrued 4,800 miles from 6,600 Car-Free Commute trips in a single month (September 2008). As a whole, the school’s culture is changing from motor-powered to foot-powered transportation. In surveys about the Car-Free Commute program, parents are saying “My daughter does not want to miss a day!” or “My son refuses to take the car.” Students are inspired by the example set by the adults, and adults are encouraged by their children into choosing Car-Free Commute — accounting for the 70 percent sustained participation achieved by the program. “We are trying to create a new culture of daily car-free habits in this young generation,” concludes Kennedy.
Bear Creek Elementary students have the support of a broad partnership of local agencies, non-profits and businesses:
Safe Routes to School Administrator
Boulder Valley School District