The biggest concern about implementing a Safe Routes to School program in Stevensville, Michigan, was the semi-rural Township’s lack of sidewalks near Roosevelt Elementary School. The largest subdivision is located within a mile of the school, but no one walked or biked because the route to school was along a busy street without sidewalks. Most streets in the Township are asphalt with soft shoulders, resulting in inadequate space to walk on the side of the driving lane.
“Michigan is one of the most ‘overweight states,’” said Megan Green, SRTS Coordinator for Roosevelt Elementary School. That unwanted distinction has provided a big incentive for community leaders to try to get children active at a young age and ingrain that activity so that it will be habit later in life.
SRTS could not provide much-needed physical activity, however, before walking paths and sidewalks were installed, “For our particular school, it was unsafe for the kids to walk or bike to school, no matter how close they lived to school,” Green said.
Michigan’s existing traffic law requires drivers to stop for people in a crosswalk, but not for people waiting to cross. As a result, there is no obligation on the part of the driver to slow or stop for kids waiting to cross at a crosswalk.
Crossing the busy John Beers Road was another significant challenge. “We knew we would have to do something to try to slow the traffic,” Green said. Trying to balance safety concerns of the parents, the Road Commission and the Police Department, as well as the cost of the project and the effect on the drivers, was difficult. Michigan Department of Transportation’s Transportation Planner Darrell Harden provided studies and information on alternative solutions to the challenges the community faced.
In 2008, Roosevelt Elementary School was awarded $306,708 from the Michigan Department of Transportation, and $4,524 of that total was designated for non-infrastructure activities. Although the infrastructure plan targeted Roosevelt Elementary School, a K-5 school with approximately 450 students, improvements also benefited the other two elementary schools, the middle school, the high school and the community at large because the improvements, especially the "Roosevelt Crossings" safety trail, would be available for use by everyone. The trail was built on the north end of the school and is outfitted with street signs and a working traffic light to help educate students about safe ways to walk and bicycle. The school also uses the pathway to promote its walking program and other special events.
The Roosevelt SRTS plan addresses all 5 E’s of a successful program. The task force modified evaluation methods from the SRTS handbook to make them applicable to Stevensville; for example, it focused on the area within a one-mile radius of the school because beyond that point the population density was not nearly as great. Organizers sought input from the community and parents, and the Township’s engineer designed infrastructure improvements that would integrate with the Township’s 5-year plan.
Enforcement activities needed to be creative, because the Township’s police department is small and could not use significant resources to help with road crossings. Through the SRTS funds, the Police Department received a portable radar speed display sign to provide instant feedback to drivers about whether or not they are speeding. Police officers transfer it to various roads around the school to remind drivers to obey speed limits.
The SRTS Committee made a deliberate decision to wait to begin any education and encouragement activities until after the non-motorized paths and sidewalks were installed.
“We felt it would be unsafe for the kids and irresponsible for us to encourage them to use the roads as they were,” Green said. “Once the non-motorized paths and sidewalks were installed, they almost sold themselves. Before the asphalt had fully cured, kids and parents and other people from the community were using them.”
The SRTS Committee concluded that inspiring the children would then influence the parents to make lifestyle changes so that the children could participate in the program. SRTS organizers created a three-level reward system, which seems to have been very successful with the K-3 children. The school planned to tweak the awards to try to entice the upper level students to officially participate. Although many of these students walk or bike, they don't participate in the rewards program. New rewards may include coupons for local activities such as laser tag, roller skating, gymnastics and swimming.
To address education, the school installed a wall rack with free information pamphlets on topics such as walking and biking safety and helmet use. The school held a bicycle skills rodeo, and it purchased multimedia educational programs. It intends to create a DVD of short educational and promotional pieces starring teachers and students, where possible, for use during inside recess and quiet times in the classrooms. Teachers will be able to access the videos through the school’s internal TV system.
The results of the program are already visible. Before the path was built, there might be five or seven bikes in the portable bike racks at the school on a spring school day, Green said. Now that the program has started, there are 60 to 70 bikes on average at the new rack, and that doesn't include the students who walk to school.
“I have had reports of bike riders, joggers, walkers, dog walkers and senior citizens using the pathways at all times of day, days of the week and weather,” said Green.
The school’s PTO supported the SRTS effort throughout the application process and provides funds for items that were not included in the grant, such as a bench and trash can at the Roosevelt Crossings, additional incentive items and funding for the upcoming school year.