Sometimes, there is great strength in numbers. The Gilbert, Arizona, Safe Routes to School 5Es program thrives due to partnerships among many organizations, including schools, school districts, PTSOs, a local municipality, a regional hospital, a regional public transit agency and local business organizations.
Keeping school routes safe is both critical and challenging in Gilbert, according to Ken Maruyama, management assistant and Safe Routes to School coordinator for Gilbert. By preserving a small-town atmosphere, Gilbert has attracted many young families with children, and the 2005 U.S. Census data identified Gilbert as one of the fastest growing communities in the nation. Rapid population growth has generated a large volume of automobile traffic, which can impact public safety and air quality in the community. This increased traffic discourages many students from walking or bicycling to school, yet parents who drive their children to school contribute to traffic congestion and air pollution around the schools.
During the past three years, the Town of Gilbert has used SRTS funding to encourage elementary and junior high schools from two school districts to adopt the concept of the 5Es: education, encouragement, enforcement, engineering, and evaluation. The program’s goals include increasing safety, mitigating traffic congestion, improving air quality and promoting a healthy lifestyle by cultivating SRTS projects.
From 2007 to 2010, the Town of Gilbert was awarded six SRTS grants totaling $753,220 through the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) as well as a small mini-grant from the National Center for Safe Routes to School.
The Town received $39,000 in FY2007 non-infrastructure funding from ADOT. This funding enabled the Town to conduct a pilot project with four elementary and junior high schools from a school district.
For the following school year, the Town proposed working with 30 elementary and junior high schools from two school districts, for which the Town received $45,000 in FY2008 non-infrastructure funding from ADOT. Additionally, the Town received $249,220 in infrastructure funding to install sidewalks, ramps and driver feedback signs.
In April 2009, the Town obtained multi-year SRTS funding ($120,000) to help support its SRTS program. All elementary and junior high schools from the two school districts were invited to participate in the 2009-2010 program, and 17 schools participated. The Town was successful in obtaining a $1,000 mini-grant from the National Center for Safe Routes to School to host a SRTS “triathlon” competition among the participating schools, and three schools participated in this special event. The Town received $300,000 in FY2010 infrastructure funding for sidewalks, ramps and a mid-block crossing.
During the 2009-2010 school year, the Gilbert SRTS program hosted school champion orientation meetings where school champions came to learn about the program’s goals, benefits and guidelines, as well as their roles and responsibilities.
“Without school participation, it is almost impossible to implement the 5Es in the community,” Maruyama said. “Our champions care about students’ wellbeing, and they are committed to safe routes to school.”
Mayor John W. Lewis proclaimed October 2009 Gilbert Walk to School Month. Fourteen elementary schools participated, and approximately 6,000 students walked to school. The schools coordinated walk-to-school parades, fun runs and Walking Wednesdays. Gilbert Elementary School held school assemblies where guest speakers educated 753 students about pedestrian and bicycle safety tips, nutrition benefits and physical exercise. One of the guest speakers came from the Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, part of Catholic Healthcare West, and addressed the childhood obesity issue through SRTS activities.
“The Gilbert SRTS program supports not only students’ walking and bicycling, but also their good health,” Maruyama said.
Schools overcame many challenges to participate in the SRTS programs. For instance, Mesquite Elementary School is not located in a pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly environment; however, Principal Missy Udall supported the adoption of the SRTS 5Es at the school. The school champion promoted students’ physical activities, including a walk-to-school day parade, fun runs and a bike-to-school week that included the participation of the principal, colleagues and PTSO members. The school also initiated a walking club in which students walked in groups during lunch time. Mesquite Elementary has actively coordinated SRTS activities, including student tally surveys, which helped the Town of Gilbert obtain infrastructure SRTS funding to develop sidewalks near the school.
Gilbert held a 2010 Bike to School Month Celebration in April by partnering with Valley Metro Regional Public Transit Authority. Fourteen schools participated, and more than 1,500 students biked to school during the month. Approximately 1,000 students bicycled to school on the bike-to-school days, double the number of students bicycling to school on regular days. Participants received goody bags and had a chance to obtain bicycle helmet vouchers. During the bike month, the Gilbert SRTS program hosted a coloring and design contest that raised the public’s awareness of bicycling as an alternative mode of transportation. San Tan Wal-Mart donated two bicycles and helmets for the contest’s winners. The same month, Ashland Ranch Elementary School hosted a bike rodeo for more than 100 students.
Seventeen schools in the Gilbert and Higley Unified School Districts have made SRTS improvements, and Gilbert has shown progress in each of the 5 Es:
Engineering: Four driver feedback signs were installed in December 2008. The signs generate data for the Town’s traffic engineering technicians to examine traffic patterns near schools. Gilbert was awarded funding in Cycle Two of Arizona DOT’s infrastructure funding to develop a quarter-mile, 6-foot wide sidewalk with bike lane near Mesquite Elementary School and to install traffic calming devices at the crossing site. Also, Gilbert was awarded Cycle Four infrastructure funding to develop a mid-block crossing, sidewalks and accessible ramps near Gilbert and Power Ranch Elementary Schools.
Enforcement: Gilbert police officers frequently patrolled at school crossings. School resource officers conducted bicycle helmet safety workshops at some schools. In Arizona, schools are responsible for providing crossing guards for students to cross safely.
Evaluation: The Arizona SRTS program requires local funding recipients to conduct student tally surveys every quarter. The surveys were forwarded to the National Center for Safe Routes to School for data entry. The program generated summary reports from the Gilbert SRTS data for assessment and shared the reports with school districts and schools. Additionally, surveys were conducted to explore issues that might prevent schools from coordinating SRTS projects and activities at their schools.
Education: The Town of Gilbert held several orientation meetings where school champions were trained to coordinate SRTS activities at their schools. The Town also hosted an Arizona SRTS workshop to train 34 participants. Pioneer, Gilbert, Burk and Ashland Ranch Elementary Schools organized educational events, such as health fairs, school assemblies and bike rodeos. Centennial Elementary School developed its SRTS website, and the Town plans to develop a website for Gilbert’s SRTS program.
Encouragement: Gilbert celebrated Walk to School Month in October and Bike to School Month in April. The Town of Gilbert assisted 17 schools in organizing special events such as Walking Wednesday, bike rodeos and coloring/design contests for the celebration. The Town was awarded a mini-grant from the National Center for Safe Routes to School to coordinate a SRTS “triathlon” in spring 2010. The three facets of the triathlon were health, walking and bicycling, and four student councils competed to have the highest participation at their schools.
“The program has guided us to explore issues affecting students’ walking and bicycling at each school, to seek opportunities to resolve the issues and to discuss how we can work together,” Maruyama said. “We have been reaching out to both individuals and organizations that would share the goals. Our program serves as a communication vehicle for us to strive to achieve the goals.”
Management Assistant and Gilbert Safe Routes to School Coordinator