Both the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County have plans underway to utilize Safe Routes to School this fall, a national program that helps localities get their children walking and biking to school more.
Charlottesville’s plans to encourage and enable safe walking and biking center around programs and events, while Albemarle is currently focused on getting federal funding for infrastructure projects.
“Right now I’m basically zoomed out, looking at the whole program,” said Kyle Rodland, Charlottesville’s Safe Routes to School Coordinator. Fall programs will include a “walking school bus,” and multiple programs to support biking.
“We are promoting being a pedestrian, and then we’re throwing in the cycling education aspect for recreation,” Rodland said.
Albemarle is focused on two potential infrastructure projects, a crosswalk in front of Cale Elementary, and pedestrian and cycling access from the Jack Jouett Middle School and Greer Elementary campuses up to Hydraulic Road.
Both of these projects would require submitting applications to the Transportation Alternatives program, through which SRTS projects can receive federal infrastructure grants.
“I wouldn’t imagine that the CTB would fund both of those projects,” said Kevin McDermott, Albemarle’s Transportation Planner. Members of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board decide which projects they would like to fund in their district, based on the applications submitted through the Transportation Alternatives program.
“So, we’ll just see where the CTB is looking this year and whether they’re the kind of projects we’ll get,” McDermott said.
The pedestrian and cycling access project comes from a recommendation in the 2012 Travel Plan specifically completed for Jouett and Greer. In order to create that access, McDermott is leaning towards a shared use path about ten feet wide, intended to be used by both cyclists and walkers.
The path would be maintained by the schools after being installed, because it would be entirely on school grounds.
The other project under consideration is a pedestrian crosswalk in front of Cale Elementary to get children from neighborhoods across Avon Street Extended to their school.
Before applying for federal funding for the Cale crosswalk, McDermott says the project needs VDOT approval because the crosswalk would be mid-block as opposed to a standard crossing at a 4-way intersection.
“Right now, I’m preparing materials to send to VDOT to get their approval,” McDermott said.
Approvals from the Board of Supervisors is also necessary before applying for federal funding in November. McDermott plans to go before the Board in August. Cost estimates for the projects are not yet available.
In Charlottesville, Rodland said one of the programs SRTS is starting to organize is a “walking school bus.”
“A walking school bus is what it sounds like,” Rodland said. “It’s a school bus without the bus.”
Families in a neighborhood could establish a “bus stop” where everyone would meet and then walk to school together each morning. Alternatively, there could be an established route that the “bus” travels, and kids would join other walkers as the group comes by their house.
“We are promoting walking to school,” Rodland said. “Of course, we don’t want anyone walking to school who isn’t able to, and we certainly don’t want children to walk to school by themselves.”
Parents and chaperones would ensure the kids stay safe on the walk. Charlottesville also plans to emphasize safe biking.
“We feel that being able to ride a bike is a safety concern, just like swimming,” Rodland said. If kids don’t fully know how to ride a bike, they could end up getting hurt, especially in the summertime, Rodland said.
Rodland wants to hold community bike repair days for the fall in partnership with the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club.
“[We would] go into low-income and mixed income neighborhoods in town and say, ‘Hey guys, we’re here, bring us your bikes and we’ll fix them for free,’” Rodland said.
“There are a lot of kids that already have bikes, and they just need to be fixed,” Rodland added. The dates of these days have not been announced.
SRTS has also enabled a new helmet giveaway program for the fall by donating stockpiles of helmets to schools.
“So if a student or their parents feel they need to take advantage of a free helmet program, they can contact the school that their child goes to, and they will get a helmet for free,” Rodland said.
Finally, Rodland said he is working on tailor-making bike programs for each school. For example, Greenbrier Elementary School is interested in building miniature mountain bike trails at their school, and procuring a fleet of bikes that any P.E. or after-school groups could use.
Rodland said SRTS is trying to help make that happen.
Before the fall months roll around and school starts up again, Charlottesville’s SRTS division has found a place to loan their bikes, Camp ExL, which the Charlottesville City Schools’ run at three elementary schools during the summer.
Rodland trains counselors at the camps, who then teach their campers some light bicycle education before using the bikes for activities such as obstacle courses.
“It’s a win-win,” Rodland said. “The kids get to have fun and ride bikes. And they get to do it in a way that’s safe and they will learn a little more about how to ride.”
McDermott spoke to the future of the SRTS program on a state and national level, saying there is always a question of whether the program will continue to be supported.
“You never know with the way federal legislation goes,” McDermott said. “I think as a state, Virginia supports the program really well, so I think that as a state, we’re in good shape.”