By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Family on a bike ride

Cities, counties and school districts in the Portland, Oregon, area can have staff dedicated to encouraging kids to walk or ride their bikes to school and to determining street safety projects around schools with newly earmarked funds totaling $3.5 million.

The Metro Council’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation voted last week to dedicate $1.5 million for a regional Safe Routes to School program and $2 million for street improvements near low-income schools and to make regional trails.

LeeAnne Fergason, director of Safe Routes to School and campaign manager for the coalition For Every Kid, said supporters turned out in force for the vote so money was not diverted to highway expansion projects.

The plan also aims to fight childhood obesity in the state since walking to school is estimated to meet about 60 percent of the average child’s daily physical activity need, Fergason said.

“We were really excited to see our decision makers really start prioritizing health and safety,” she said.

Ten-year-old Austin Hecker told the committee about his route to John Wetten Elementary School in Gladstone, Oregon, before the vote.

“People who are driving are in a rush to get to work and us kids are small and hard to see. I want to be safe, and I want my friends to be safe too,” he said.

Supporters of For Every Kid, a coalition that includes nine school districts, five cities, thousands of parents and young people and 89 coalition partners, including the American Heart Association, held up yellow signs reading “Invest in Safe Routes” during the vote. The group is advocating for infrastructure improvements like sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes to support a safe and healthy childhood.

In another measure last week, voters in Portland narrowly approved a temporary 10-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline within city limits. Of that, the city has said it plans to use 56 percent of the money raised for road repairs and 44 percent for pedestrians and bicyclist safety improvements, particularly near schools.

Fergason said a regional Safe Routes to School program would include education programs like lessons on bike safety skills on roadways and also encouragement programs to get youth started walking or riding their bikes to school. Some communities have set up Walking School Buses, where kids meet up for their trip to school and benefit from safety in numbers.

“We know that education and encouragement programs combined with making streets safe around schools on average increases walking and biking to school by 40 percent, which is great exercise for the kids and reduces morning traffic for everyone else. So it’s kind of win-win for everybody,” Fergason said.

For parents, the concern is that their children make it to school safely. Older areas of Portland have sidewalks, but areas that were incorporated over the years to become part of the city are often lacking them, Fergason said.

This funding will help pay staff to perform needs assessments and to determine costs so when infrastructure funding is available, a list of projects is prioritized and ready to go, she said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean we need to put sidewalks on every street in Portland, but we need to focus on those intersections that kids are using and that are the most dangerous.”