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Don't stop believing: What you can do to create safe routes to school

It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you engage your community

By Amy Sackaroff, AICP, EIT (Raleigh, NC)

If there's one thing you can say about me, it’s that I’m a planner. I may be a transportation planner by profession, but definitely a planner by nature as well. I plan gardens, PTA programs, New Year’s Eve parties, and of course I plan (probably too much) for my kids’ safety and success. And speaking of safety, in the spring of 2013, my planning instinct kicked in once again as I sat in the carpool line at my kids’ school.

I had recently attended a great session at a conference earlier that month and was inspired by all the new ideas promoting safe, active transportation for children. It made me take stock of conditions at my children’s school and wonder what I could do to help create a “Safe Routes to School” program in my community. Walking to school was not feasible for my family, but that didn’t stop this planner from planning – maybe I could help improve routes for others so that they could walk to and from school – if we could make them safe.

There were many issues, and the long carpool line was one of the more obvious, but there were other big issues to overcome to make walking to school a more appealing prospect. The main entrance to the school is at an intersection with sight distance issues, made worse by queueing at a nearby signal and the volume of cars entering and leaving the school. Students living across from the school must cross a road that’s been widened to five and six lanes (but only paved for two lanes), creating a large expanse of asphalt between the neighborhood and the school. Aside from the required “school zone” signage, there are no midblock crosswalks or signs to indicate that the corridor also serves pedestrians.

Being the planner I am, my thoughts then turned to the future: what’s the school’s capacity?  How many more homes are planned for development in the area?  Is the school’s main entry road planned to become a five-lane roadway? As I learned more, it became apparent that it was going to take some planning to improve walking routes to our school.

So, now what? Transportation planning is time-consuming...and what parent of young children has extra time? I struggled with the idea of volunteering my expertise for a few weeks, thinking about how much of a commitment it would be – years, no doubt – and considering if I was up for it. And, after much consideration, I finally decided that I was. Now, where should I start...?

Transportation planning encompasses long-range “vision”-type planning, corridor or area studies, and preconstruction (NEPA) planning. It’s like a 3D lattice with all its parts held together by multiple connections. Planning efforts happen sequentially, but there is a lot of “time travel” to make sure that future needs are anticipated and that a project’s purpose will remain valid years into the future when funding becomes available.  

Because I understood early on that this effort would be similar to a long-range planning process, my knowledge of these type projects told me that first I needed to develop a game plan for the long haul. I followed up with speakers from the conference I attended and became connected to state transportation planning professionals. From these folks, I learned how best to plan my program and then generate interest in walking and biking to school. I also capitalized on professional connections within Stantec to direct me to local transportation planners both in academia and municipal planning. This expanded my community connections and made it possible for me to hold a meeting at the school with local planners and engineers to discuss short-term and long-term improvements. These connections grew, and before I knew it, I was connected to so many great people, it was humbling!

I was invited to participate in local grassroots organizations to promote children’s health and wellness by creating safe routes to school and have recently been asked to chair a county-wide Safe Routes to School committee made up of a number of municipal and county governments in our area. I’m very excited at the opportunity to make a difference on a larger scale than I had imaged and have met so many people already doing such important work! While this isn’t accomplished during my 9-5 transportation planning role at Stantec, it is fulfilling my desire to continue to learn more about my chosen profession and gives me a great sense of satisfaction to use my volunteer work to benefit my local community.     

Things are still in the works back at my kids’ school, so I can’t conclude my story by telling you that everything is fixed and I’m all done, but I’m okay with that. We’re making strides in creating walking school buses (groups of students walking together to improve safety through visibility) and will keep moving forward until the local municipality can fund our proposed improvements to improve safety at the school’s entrance.     

This means, of course, that this planner will keep on planning! 

Amy Sackaroff, AICP, EIT, is a transportation planner (and mom) based in our Raleigh, NC office.

We’re making strides in creating walking school buses and will keep moving forward until the municipality can fund our proposed improvements

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