Who Will Carry the Torch?

Dave CowanThis morning, in the darkness of dawn, I snuck out to the foothills of Denver for a little inspiration/perspiration on a mountain bike ride with two of my trusted compadres. Despite Colorado stereotypes, none of us are particularly fit but we enjoy a ride in the mountains as much as we enjoy rolling around town or hauling our kids to their respective schools. In the silence, recovery and elation that follows a strenuous ride, I asked them how they came to love bicycling. As you might imagine, like many people our age, they each relayed stories of their childhood that involved pedaling to the store, going to school and playing with friends.

In this moment, when I should be happy about the ride, my friends and their lifelong love affairs with bicycles, I am struck by deep sense of concern. I’m reminded that when my friends and I were kids 48 percent of students walked or bicycled to school, and today that has plummeted to 13 percent. This means when my kids, and my neighbor’s kids and my friend’s kids reach my age they will not necessarily have fond childhood memories of bicycling or memories of an adventurous walk through the neighborhood.

This concern drives my hope for a shift in perspective that will lead to a massive overhaul of our behavior. Safe Routes to School, in this regard, has become my personal and professional savior.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of standing in front of Heatherwood Elementary school in Boulder, Colorado during their student arrival. Despite its somewhat mythical reputation as a healthy, athletic community, three years ago students walking and bicycling to/from Heatherwood closely mirrored national trends at a low 11.4 percent.  These statistics inspired parents to do something to change it. Through their evaluation process, they identified one particular intersection on a 45 mph road that dissected the school from many of the families that live in the community. They applied for and were awarded federal Safe Routes to School funding to build a better crossing, slow the speeds of cars on the corridor to 20 mph and improve the pick-up and drop off procedures around the school. Simultaneously, the school and its parents worked on bicycle and pedestrian safety education, Walk and Roll weeks, a Golden Sneaker award, a crossing guard program and (one of my favorites) a team of student leaders who help move the hug and go lane along in a friendly, non-confrontational manner. This was just the tip of the iceberg. Heatherwood proceeded to build walking and bicycling into their culture with the help of a couple of motivated, passionate people.  

Standing in front of Heatherwood, I was witness to the transformation the school had undergone. Winner of the James L. Oberstar Award, Heatherwood’s work had increased walking and bicycling from 11.4 percent to more than 43 percent! Students and their parents came pouring into the school under their own power, seemingly outnumbering the cars that occasionally came and went. Almost completely reversing the decline of students walking and bicycling is exactly what Safe Routes to School is supposed to do. I bet if you were to ask the parents of Heatherwood that made it happen, they would tell you a story about how walking and bicycling was a key component of their childhood, how they rode to the store or how they walked to school. I only hope we continue to see similar examples throughout the country, because not only do we need a healthy, environmentally friendly nation of walkers and bicyclists, we need a new generation of advocates to lead our charge.


Local Practice and Policy, a blog written by Dave Cowan, will cover many of the multifaceted aspects of his work here at the Safe Routes Partnership. Focusing on best practices, voices from the field and reflections on the Safe Routes to School movement as a whole, this blog will attempt to share a sliver of the good vibes, happy stories, and great people Dave has the pleasure of working with to further Safe Routes to School on a daily basis.