Columbia, Missouri: New drop-off area creates excitement about walking to school

Introduction

When the PedNet Coalition in Columbia, MO organized daily Walking School Buses at West Boulevard Elementary School in fall 2006, only fifteen of the nearly 300 kindergarten through fifth grade students participated regularly.

Since then, the participation rate has grown to 65 students.

With the success of the Walking School Bus program, funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an organization with the mission to improve the health of all Americans and organized by PedNet Coalition, PedNet coordinators wanted to continue encouragement activities at West Boulevard Elementary.

Activities

In summer 2007, the city of Columbia received a $15,725 Safe Routes to School (SRTS) grant through the Missouri Department of Transportation. With this funding, PedNet coordinators, dedicated to encouraging active travel, such as walking, and safe routes, decided to promote the idea of created a new drop-off location for the school buses and motor vehicles.

West Boulevard Elementary has almost 300 students in grades kindergarten through fifth, and 75 children live within walking distance of the school.

By providing the children with the responsibility and opportunity to walk to school, the children are building important relationships with one another, said Margy Tonnies, SRTS Coordinator for PedNet Coalition.  Day in and day out some of the students ride one of four buses to school, Tonnies said, but with the daily Walking School Bus, the bus riders will be able to walk to school and interact with children from other grades. To further promote walking at West Boulevard Elementary, parents, teachers and residents attended a community meeting hosted by the city of Columbia, PedNet Coalition and Columbia Public Schools to determine how to take advantage of the underutilized community park located behind the school. The attendees concluded that if the school officials rerouted the buses to drop off the children at the park, the children could walk less than 10 minutes through the park to reach the school. To ensure the safety of the children, students from nearby Columbia College volunteered to monitor the children as they walked through the park to school.

“I think with enough of the right residents around, the more walking home after school, and the more it’s utilized — it increases the comfortableness of using the park,” Tonnies said.

The community’s desire to increase the students’ health and reduce traffic congestion by moving the drop-off location earned support when the principal decided that he, too, would like to move the motor vehicle drop-off area.

Several meetings, organized in collaboration with the Public Works Department, were held to discuss the new drop-off area located at the park. On May 7 and 8, 2008, West Boulevard Elementary hosted two pilot Walk to School Days, in which the buses dropped off the bus riders at the new drop-off location at the park, while the Walking School Buses continued as usual for the morning.

The feedback from the new drop-off location was incredible, Tonnies said, and the students were excited for the opportunity to walk to school. Tonnies reported that one student said, ‘This is the best day of my life.” In conjunction with the new drop-off location, there were roundtable discussions that same week with the mayor, public works, PedNet, the West Boulevard Elementary principal and some of the students.

At these community meetings, the attendees discussed the benefits of the community using the park and the importance of walking.

“The conversation was real big picture,” Tonnies said. “Where’s Columbia moving?”

Because of the positive student response from the two Walk to School Days and the importance of walking, both to improve student health and reduce traffic congestion, the West Boulevard Elementary principal decided to work toward permanently changing the drop-off location to the park. At the start of the fall 2008 school year, the four buses that drive the students to school will begin a rotating schedule, which will call for two of the four buses to drop off the children at the park. In addition, the principal also will allow 20 motor vehicles to drop off their children at the park.

Milestones

Any more than 20 motor vehicles, Tonnies said, and the drop-off area would be congested. With the new drop-off program for the buses and motor vehicles and the Walking School Buses, Tonnies said the school staff easily could see half the student body walking to school on a daily basis. In August, there will be a meeting for parents to register their motor vehicles to drop off their children at the park for their walk to school.

As of right now, there are no infrastructure changes needed to move the drop-off area to the park. “It really is ideal the way it is now,” Tonnies said. Looking at the big picture, Tonnies said, the school would like to move the drop-off area to a different location around the corner, but that would require infrastructure improvements. Tonnies said she would like to see the street next to West Boulevard Elementary become a one-way street, and she wants to implement traffic calming devices. “It’s kind of exciting that they are thinking big picture — not just for the school but for the community. In the big scheme of things, I think it’s going to change just the whole area,” she said.

Contact

Margy Tonnies
Safe Routes to School Coordinator, PedNet Coalition
Phone: (573) 864-2556
Email: margy@pednet.org