Granville County is a rural North Carolina community with two main cities: Oxford and Butner. Although some children walk to school, the numbers are small, according to Justin Jorgensen, Granville County transportation planner. Approximately 80 percent of parents will not allow their students to walk to school due to perceptions of traffic and crime.
“Currently, parents seem to understand the health benefits of walking, but their overriding concern is safety for their children,” Jorgensen says. “There will be a delicate balancing act between addressing fears and discussing the benefits about walking to school.”
In Phase 1 of this project, five schools in Oxford and Butner were targeted. The schools were selected due to student densities within a mile of the school campus, as well as the ability to connect to existing infrastructure. On each campus, more than 50 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. According to surveys conducted at the Phase I schools, parents were mainly concerned about distance, traffic volume and speed and violence/crime. A previous superintendent provided bus services for all students due to concerns about crime, and as a result, for the past several years students have not been encouraged to walk to school.
“While the intention was good, it deprived students of the potential health benefits of walking, and it has now resulted in a complacent frame of mind among parents and students,” Jorgensen said.
In 2010, Granville County was awarded $30,717 from the N.C. Department of Transportation for a non-infrastructure SRTS program that focuses on education, encouragement and evaluation. In a separate application, the Town of Butner was awarded $300,000 in infrastructure funding for sidewalks near the Butner-Stem schools, both of which are included in the County’s non-infrastructure grant. Creedmoor has been awarded funding from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program to build nearly a mile of sidewalk and paved trail, Jorgenson said.
Education and encouragement activities included neighborhood forums, the formation of Walking School Buses and inviting guest speakers to talk to students. The Sheriff Department’s McGruff the Crime Dog, accompanied by a law enforcement officer, focused on pedestrian safety and personal security. Granville Greenways presenters emphasized safety as they discussed why walking is fun. Butner Public Safety and the City of Oxford Police Department also supported the program.
Another key piece of the program has been development of a website devoted to SRTS that provides a calendar of events, volunteer information and consent forms. It will eventually include animated route maps that will allow students to "virtually" follow a potential path to school. Route maps will also enable students to show parents/guardians the potential routes that their peers travel on their way to school, further encouraging parents to be safe when driving in school zones. The site has an option for viewing it in Spanish, and Jorgenson said that the website developer incorporated a Google translation program into the website design. In addition, a volunteer translated consent forms and other hard copy materials into Spanish.
The effort has benefited from publicity geared toward addressing parent/guardian concerns with press releases, newspaper advertisements, proclamations for Walk to School Month, public service announcements on the local public access channel and radio station, flyers and tip sheets.
Law enforcement placed a speed trailer at select schools during Walk to School Month, and Creedmoor installed permanent speed feedback signs near the elementary and high schools.
Results of the project have been measured using Student Tally Sheets and Parent Surveys. Subjective data was obtained from conversations with school staff/administrators, website comments, SRTS Task Force meetings and neighborhood forums.
“The biggest strength has been the ability of all the local organizations to come together and work on a plan as a county,” Jorgenson said. “Each municipality, the schools, county government, sheriff’s office, and others are all working together to implement the plan.”
The program has been promoted through the website, distribution of tip sheets, route maps, certificates for participating in Walk to School Day and various flyers. County staff have discussed SRTS with parents/guardians at neighborhood forums and PTA meetings and have been recruiting volunteers for the Walking School Bus.
So far, the County has reported a 5 percent increase in students walking to Butner Elementary School. In addition, the parent surveys showed that the SRTS organizers achieved a goal of shifting parent/guardian perceptions of children walking to school. They met their targeted increase of 5 percent of parents/guardians who report that they would allow their children to walk to school.
In the future, Granville County plans to apply for more funding for the Phase II schools and for more infrastructure grants as well. “Butner still needs more sidewalks, and we hope to fill in the gaps in the sidewalk system around the schools in Oxford,” said Jorgensen.
Transportation Planner, Granville County