The 14 school districts of Alameda County, C.A., are some of the most diverse in America, encompassing inner-city areas and bucolic suburbs alike.
On Wednesday, October 5th, students from all across the heterogeneous districts will join up for International Walk to School Day. The county's participation is representative of the momentum that the "Walk to School" movement is gaining around the country and the world.
In 2010, more than 3,500 schools in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. celebrated Walk to School Day. That translates into hundreds of thousands of students and families raising awareness. Officials predict 2011's event will shatter that participation record this year.
This may not seem particularly noteworthy -- after all, walking to school used to be a part of American life that people took for granted. But over time, as urban neighborhoods have become less safe and suburbs have sprawled, parents have become less and less likely to let their kids pound the pavement to school.
Economist Eric A. Norris (Freakonomics) notes that "active travel to school has been replaced not by school bus riding but by travel in private cars, the share of which has risen from less than 20 percent in 1969 to about 55 percent today."
Nancy Pullen-Seufert is the associate director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, a government funded institute in Chapel Hill, N.C. She says that "for many communities, having children be able to walk to school is seen as a barometer for quality of life."
TransForm C.A., located in Alameda, can't stabilize the quality of life for all residents across the county, but it is making it possible for all children in its school districts to walk safely to school. The organization works with about 80 schools directly in the Bay Area, and plans to make International Walk to School Day a major event.
Like similar organizations working with schools and communities throughout the country, TransForm C.A. will be organizing parents, principals and students to promote the sundry benefits of walking, biking, scooting and carpooling to school.
Nora Cody oversees TransForm's Safe Routes to School program, which began working in inner-city communities with the goal of making it safe again for children to walk to school. One of the most effective tools has been "walking school buses" -- morning walks to school led by neighborhood parents.
"In low income areas, or when there are areas with a lot of crime," describes Cody, "people often have to walk; they may not have cars, so by organizing them into groups to walk together we can make the students a bit safer."
Safe Routes makes inroads with school principals, parents and community leaders to promote its message. Most everyone responds to their message of safety, especially because TransForm works with local law enforcement to ensure walking routes are monitored. As an added benefit, the morning walks led by a rotation of parents reinforce the community by providing a time for parents to spend time with their children's friends.
More recently, Cody and her organization expanded to more suburban districts where environmental, health and community-building concerns are most prevalent.
"The great thing about this program is that it can appeal on four or five levels," says Cody.
Peralta Elementary is one such suburban school that has embraced Transform's message. Raphael Breines is a parent of two Peralta students and leads the Safe Routes program there. He's noticed short and long term benefits from the implementation of TransForm's advocacy.
Breines says Peralta's walking school bus allows parents to "meet your neighbors more, and to get to know the kids because the parents rotate so you get to interact with the kids and the kids get to interact, which is fun."
Five years ago, TransForm -- along with students, faculty and parents -- performed a "walking audit" of the school and its surrounding community to determine how walking routes can be improved. The laying of concrete is one area that children's enthusiasm for walking or riding bikes to school can't impel adults to action, so TransForm advocates with local government officials to change roadways. Brienes says the city of Oakland will be implementing some of the changes suggested by the audit.
That's the two way street of Safe Routes' goals: To increase the amount of students walking to school often demands changing the institutionalized environmental factors that deter children from walking to school.
By engaging the community on an issue that everyone can get behind, they can help promote long-term changes to the community. No amount of walking school buses will overcome the fact that students at schools near freeways and heavy traffic areas experience a higher rate of asthma.
So overtime, TransForm and Safe Routes goals are to influence the way we build and organize communities to make it easier to use greener modes of transportation. According to Cody, data indicates "a load shift away from single occupancy vehicles by 8.5 percent. Most of that occurred through more walking."
Of course it's not all policy, the environment, and exercise -- Safe Routes also makes it fun and rewarding for children to participate.
On Wednesday, schools in Alameda will set up banners and tables at school entrances and reward students who walked, biked (with a helmet) or road in a carpool with a sticker and a temporary tattoo. Those who earn a sticker will place it on the banner. Over the course of the year, similar monthly events will continue to incentivize student participation while the number of stickers given out provides a clever tracking method for measuring the number of students walking, biking, scooting and carpooling to school.
So far, the program has been a ringing success. Demand from local schools has forced TransForm C.A. to create an application process to determine which schools their limited resources can support each year.
No matter which district you're in, be on the lookout for pint-sized pedestrians and their parents in reduced speed zones throughout Alameda County on Wednesday.
Beckley Mason advocates for pedestrian safety as director of client outreach at GJEL.
Follow Beckley Mason on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gjelblogger