Before Congress passed the SAFETEA-LU transportation legislation in 2005, the Las Cruces Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in Las Cruces, NM, adopted Safe Routes to School (SRTS) policies into its transportation plan.
“We actually started on the SRTS project prior to the state’s SRTS program getting started,” said Andy Hume, associate planner for the MPO. “We wrote one of the first action plans in the state.”
As of 2008, the MPO has worked with two elementary schools and one middle school in Las Cruces to help establish SRTS Action Plans for future programs. These Action Plans require travel data collection and analysis, identify areas of concern regarding bicycle and pedestrian safety and recommend solutions to these issues.
In March 2008, the New Mexico Department of Transportation notified the MPO that it received $27,000 in federal SRTS funds to implement its Action Plan at Hillrise Elementary School. In addition, the MPO was awarded two $15,000 grants to develop SRTS Action Plans at Mesilla Elementary and Camino Real Middle School. Once these action plans are developed, the MPO can apply for grants at the beginning of the December 2008 funding cycle.
SRTS activities first began in September 2005, when Hume began to assemble an SRTS steering committee. The members reflected the various stakeholders in Las Cruces, such as the public schools transportation department, city traffic engineering, the police department and interested citizens.
“They felt that it would be a really great idea to have a pilot project” Hume said. “And something that we could point to and say, ‘Here are some things that worked, and here are some things that didn’t.’”
To implement a successful SRTS program at Hillrise Elementary, the steering committee needed baseline information. They gathered travel data, conducted walking audits and surveyed parents to determine how to best encourage students to walk and bicycle to school.
“I am very proud to say that from the state level, our area is probably setting the pace for SRTS activities in the state” – Andy Hume, Associate Planner for MPO
Hume said Hillrise Elementary, a school serving grades kindergarten through fifth, is a neighborhood school. The necessary sidewalk infrastructure already exists, and the majority of students live within walking distance of the school. Despite these advantages, a survey disseminated by the principal’s office revealed that only seven percent of students walked or bicycled to school, and almost 85 percent of the students were driven. The survey results also reported that many parents indicated they did not want their children walking or bicycling because of perceived stranger danger, traffic around the neighborhood and school and motor vehicle speeding.
“People think it’s so dangerous, and really it’s not,” said Hume, who wants a presenter from the first national SRTS conference to speak with parents about overcoming these negative perceptions.
In October 2006, the SRTS steering committee organized a three-day celebration of the first Walk to School Day at Hillrise Elementary. The Las Cruces Codes Enforcement officers organized a bicycle rodeo each morning of the celebration. The student body was divided by grade and skill level and received age-appropriate bicycle safety lessons and bicycled through practice courses. More than 150 students attended the bicycle rodeo each day until all of the 500 students completed the program.
Of the 500 students who attend the school, almost 300 students walked or bicycled on Walk to School Day. As a result, International Walk to School Day has transformed into Walk to School Wednesdays. On these days, a teacher waits for students at an alternate drop-off location at a local church and walks with the students to school. Hume said the school employee supervision makes the parents more comfortable in allowing their child to walk to school.
All the students also designed posters about walking and bicycling for a poster contest, and the school principal announced three winners from each grade on Walk to School Day.
To sustain the encouragement and education activities, the MPO needed to reduce traffic speed and volume, as well as parents’ concerns about stranger danger. As a result, the MPO launched a traffic calming project, placed a crossing guard at a key location, cleared sidewalks of obstructions and increased law enforcement of speeding and parking violations.
Post-program data was collected in May 2007. Although there was a lower response rate than the 60 percent achieved with the pre-program surveys, the results still revealed an increase in children walking and bicycling and a decrease in traveling by motor vehicle. The surveys also showed that while parents still ranked stranger danger and high traffic volumes and speeds as concerns, the overall level of these concerns declined.
With the grant the Las Cruces Public Schools received on behalf of Hillrise Elementary, Hume said that Hillrise Elementary will hire a part-time SRTS coordinator for the fall 2008 school year to formalize walking school buses and bicycle trains and to purchase supplies for encouragement and education projects.
Also, there are plans to have Walk to School months in September and in January. In September, there will be a contest between the different classes. Students will track the mileage accrued while walking or bicycling to school, and the class with the most miles logged will win a prize.
Because of how well Hillrise Elementary responded to the SRTS program, Hume said he is excited to develop action plans at Mesilla Elementary and Camino Real.
“I am very proud to say that from the state level, our area is probably setting the pace for SRTS activities in the state,” Hume said. “We have just got so much positive energy right now.”
Andy Hume, Associate Planner
Las Cruces Metropolitan Planning Organization
PO Box 20000, Las Cruces, NM, 88004
Phone: (575) 528-3047