As the morning sunlight gleamed over the horizon, Central High School’s parking lot was filled with cars sporting license plates from all over the state of Georgia from Savannah to Augusta to Macon and Atlanta. The occasion was the Georgia Safe Routes to School Forum, an annual conference which is held for one day every year in the summer to discuss ways to improve the rates of students who walk or ride their bikes to school every day.
The opening session was presented by keynote speaker, Ian Lockwood, who is a transportation engineer in West Palm Beach, Florida. Ian, who also publishes comics alongside his work as a transportation engineer, shared with the conference attendees the story of his work in West Palm Beach and how he transformed the city to be more pedestrian-friendly and thus, a better city.
Some of Ian Lockwood’s work includes narrowing major streets in West Palm Beach and creating more green spaces which included patios, seating, and various plants such as palm trees and bushes. As these spaces were created, more people in West Palm Beach began to open businesses near these areas and the city flourished. Now, many of the places which had been abandoned when Ian first began his work in West Palm Beach are public spaces for celebrations, festivals, and local gatherings. There are more bike routes, encouraging less motorized vehicle transport and greener alternatives such as walking to work or cycling.
As the conference broke out into smaller sessions throughout the day, presenters taught attendees various new skills to retain and implement in their regions. One of these was the management of a Bike Rodeo. Bike Rodeos are coordinated events, typically held at schools, where students are given the opportunity to not only learn how to start and stop a bike with the power pedal method, but how to use safety when cycling through their neighborhoods on their routes to school. The presenters gave attendees the opportunity to experience their own Bike Rodeo using bikes they brought and obstacles typically included in the Rodeo, such as STOP signs, cardboard cutouts of cars, and sponges. After putting on our helmets, many of the attendees chose to attempt the Rodeo and learned a bit themselves about some of the rules of safe bike riding.
Another early session was the walk audit on a selected route in the neighborhood surrounding Central High School. A walk audit is when a group walks a circuit in a neighborhood and observes the area’s qualities from the perspective of a pedestrian. This audit wrapped around the neighborhood from Napier Ave to Pio Nono, back to Central through a right-of-way footpath and smaller streets. Some of the group’s observations included the poor conditions of the sidewalks due to overgrowth, blight such as abandoned houses and buildings, and the lack of crosswalk technology such as proper curb ramps and directional lights for pedestrians.
After lunch, many sessions took place inside the school building and these included specialized sessions regarding the planning of safe routes to schools for many different regions. One session, which seemed particularly useful to Lynmore Estates, was the safe routes to school and technology. This session discussed different map-creating software and websites that exist, such as MapQuest, CommunityWalk, and Google Maps. The presenters taught attendees how to create routes using these maps and publish them online for parents who may want to walk their children to school alongside other children from the same school. The technology would also allow there to be imaging for improvements to be made along these routes such as blight, poor curb ramps, and inadequate sidewalks or bike routes for students to use on their way to school. Other technology introduced were tracking technology and social media, which can be used if parents cannot walk their children to school, yet still have children who walk to school with other children typically in a group. This would also encourage more cycling and walking to school as families would be able to see how many other children are walking to school.
For school communities and administrators, another session which revolved around travel plans took place at the same time. Some of the topics discussed in this session included the order of release at the end of the day of different groups of students, such as car riders, walkers and cyclists, and bus riders. Many attendees felt as if it was best for walkers and cyclists to be released first so they would be able to avoid traffic caused by buses and cars on the roads, while others felt that releasing these students last would allow them to “wait out” the traffic of cars and buses. Another topic was creating routes nearby the school for students, such as having school administrators walk children to certain streets or assigning areas to officials to monitor for the children’s safety. This would also include the use of school crossing guards both in the morning and afternoon. This would make for a complete travel plan as the entire community would become involved with parents, administrators, school crossing guards, and city officials contributing to the organization of the students’ travel to and from school.
In another afternoon session, presenters discussed a similar topic on the inclusion of school crossing guards and including more of the community in creating safe routes to school for children who walk and cycle to school. The presenter, who is the chief of police in Atlanta and in charge of the Atlanta Schools’ safe routes program, emphasized in her presentation the importance of recruiting members of the community in creating safe routes for children. One of the examples she used was the training of not only school crossing guards, but police in safety guidelines for children walking to school whether it be looking left, then right, then left again before crossing the street or being aware of one’s surroundings. This concept of making it the community’s responsibility to ensure that children have safe routes to school was beneficial for the various attendees who ranged from school administrators, parents, volunteers, and law enforcement officials. It provided each of us with a task on how we can help improve children’s routes to school whether it be by foot or by bike.
Another of the final sessions of the day attendees could visit was the complete streets forum. This session was unique for its unique idea. A complete street is a street which is made encompassing the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, public transit, and motorists. This street would allow motorists and public transit to operate alongside cyclists and pedestrians during the day. Then, at night, the street could be used as a public space for celebration such as a concert, a festival, or other social gatherings, being exclusively a social space. This is an idea which is implemented through various projects, such as the works of the Georgia Department of Transportation, who works to improve public transit and overall travel methods such as walking, cycling, or driving a vehicle.
At the end of the conference, attendees were invited to socialize and exchange business cards and information not already shared during sessions while raffling for door prizes which highlighted some of the main themes of the event, such as cycling through national parks, a walking tour in Atlanta, and other fun activities one can enjoy in the state of Georgia. By the end of the conference, many attendees left feeling confident and empowered in improving their communities’ standards of transportation and held high hopes for next year’s Safe Routes to School Forum.
Pictured are left to right: David Gowan, Director of Safety/Risk Management with the Bibb County Public School System, Lynmore Estates resident youths Stephen Gagne and Jennifer Gagne, and Dr. Sundra Woodford, Macon Area Habitat for Humanity’s Neighborhood Revitalization Coordinator