St. Thomas Aquinas School is located in an urban neighborhood approximately four miles north of downtown Indianapolis. It serves 221 students in kindergarten to 8th grade. Officials estimate that 85 percent of the students live within two miles of the school and could walk or bicycle to school if conditions were better. However, surveys taken prior to instituting an SRTS program showed that less than 15 percent of students walked or biked to school.
The primary obstacles to walking and bicycling to school were high traffic volume and speed; a former highway goes through the school’s walking area. Officials needed to find ways for students to cross that road safely. Safety issues resulting from a lack of education and support programs and infrastructure obstacles also were cited as primary challenges to walking and bicycling.
The SRTS program began with an advantage: the community already had an active mindset.
“It’s a traditional neighborhood developed mostly in the 1920’s with a grid network of streets, plentiful sidewalks and houses with front porches,” said Jennifer Pyrz, P.E., St. Thomas Aquinas Safe Routes to School committee chairwoman. “People live here because they desire a livable community. A lot of people choose the neighborhood because they want to walk and bicycle.”
In 2008, the school was awarded a $52,000 non-infrastructure grant from the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to develop a comprehensive SRTS plan, with a goal of creating a safe environment that would encourage more students to walk or bicycle to school.
The St. Thomas Aquinas SRTS team consists of parents, neighbors, teachers and administrators. For special events and initiatives, the committee has received assistance and support from INDOT, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and Department of Public Works, the Indianapolis Mayor’s office, Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent, the STA Home-School Association, the HARMONI local neighborhood improvement group, neighborhood businesses and associations and neighboring schools.
The SRTS plan that was published in 2009 resulted from significant public involvement and described goals, and it made recommendations addressing the five E’s (Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement and Evaluation). Many of the recommendations rely on community support, including enforcement, infrastructure improvements and training from community partners.
“The health community is really excited about SRTS; so are bicycling advocates and many other community members,” Pyrz said, and she encouraged other communities to tap into these resources. “Many people and organizations are willing to support the encouragement and education initiatives of a SRTS program. We find here in Indianapolis that there is no need for our schools to purchase incentives or giveaways or to hire professionals for safety education or safety patrol training. We’ve been fortunate to have all of those items donated by members of our community who think this is an important program.”
One of the first steps the school took to address safety concerns was the development of a comprehensive Walking School Bus (WSB) program that has not only helped keep children safer, but also raised community awareness about the SRTS program by increasing its visibility. Organizers used geographic information systems to plot students’ locations, then used Google Earth and walkabouts to identify a route for each potential walker.
St. Thomas Aquinas hosted its first International Walk to School Day event in October 2009 and kicked off its walking school buses on five routes. Four WSBs now operate five days a week; the other one meets two days per week. Participation ranges from eight to 20 students per route on an average day. The average WSB route is 1 mile, and the longest distance is 1.5 miles. In addition, some groups of bicyclists join together in bike trains.
STA Principal Jerry Flynn, a strong supporter of SRTS, said that before starting an SRTS program, organizers should make sure parents buy into the program and are willing to help.
“I think the students are proud to be walking and biking,” Flynn said. “It sets them apart and makes them feel good and healthy and builds their self confidence.”
Community partners have supported SRTS efforts in a variety of ways. The Department of Public Works has painted crosswalks and center lines in the vicinity of the school. “No turn on red” signs have been posted at critical intersections, and signal timings have been adjusted. Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital provides training in walking and bicycling safety each school year. Police officers are citing those who run red lights and have periodically monitored speeds with a speed trailer. An on-line survey was sent to parents in winter 2010 to evaluate the success of the WSB program and to solicit input regarding improvements.
“The community loves to see kids walking and biking to school as opposed to taking a bus or being driven,” Flynn said. “Both the school community and local community are very supportive.”
In April 2010, STA celebrated Grandparents Day with a special Walk to School event. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, U.S. Congressman Andre Carson, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and League of American Bicyclists President Andy Clarke walked and biked to school with students and their grandparents. Secretary LaHood encouraged STA families to stay active and healthy.
Throughout April 2011, STA and three other neighborhood schools participated in a Neighborhood Walk to School Challenge where students tracked their number of walking and biking days for the entire month. The winning school received a traveling trophy and frozen yogurt coupons for every student.
Today, the number of STA students who walk and bike to school on a regular basis has increased from 15 percent to nearly 40 percent. Parent involvement has increased, and community support for walking and bicycling to school has grown. St Thomas Aquinas has become a model for other communities and is sharing its experience in seminars, workshops and other educational events. Three other area schools have started their own SRTS programs after learning about Safe Routes to School from St. Thomas Aquinas.
In January 2010, St. Thomas Aquinas was awarded an infrastructure grant of $250,000 from INDOT, and construction is scheduled to begin in 2012. The grant will fund installation of curb bumpouts that will shorten the distance for pedestrians crossing a busy intersection and signage that reminds drivers of the law to give pedestrians the right of way in intersections. There will also be improvements to roadway crossings, pedestrian countdown signals, bike parking and curb ramps.
“Many schools and communities just don’t know about the SRTS program or understand how easy it is to obtain and use the federal funds,” Pyrz said. “Share your experiences with others and bring them on board.”
Increasing awareness about SRTS among schools within the community has its benefits. “All four neighborhood schools are sharing resources and experiences, which saves everyone time and money,” Pyrz said.
Jennifer Pyrz, P.E.
St. Thomas Aquinas Safe Routes to School Committee Chair