Walkable for Whom? And to Where?

The start of another school year. (Photo: MZ Strategies, LLC; Sept 2012)

The start of another school year. (Photo: MZ Strategies, LLC; Sept 2012)

I’m proud to call Arlington County -- a livability oasis in Northern Virginia --  my home. It has become this as a result of decades of strong political leadership, extremely engaged citizens, and a business/development community who sees the value in locating near transit and designing projects that promote transit and walking, outside cafes, street trees and other amenities. The County is also aggressively pursuing bike lanes and bike sharing as viable transportation options. In a recent chat with the County’s Transportation Director, Dennis Leach, he shared his dream to see Arlington bring home the coveted prize for being America’s most bike friendly community.

And yet, at the same time, in the same county, a group of local officials elected by the same voters are on a course that in the short term could undermine these efforts. Citing cost savings the Arlington Public School (APS) Board this fall tightened its policy on school busing. Hundreds of families received letters informing their school age children they would no longer be able to ride to school but were encouraged to walk instead. On its face, given the County’s investments to support walking and bicycling this seems a down right sensible move.

“Bus transportation is available only for eligible students who receive a "bus pass" in the mail. All others are designated as "walkers." Families are asked to encourage students to walk or bike to school – this is a healthier option and will also benefit the environment by reducing the number of cars transporting students to and from school.” – APS Website

However, what has become apparent in the 2 weeks since school started is the lack of coordination between the School Board and County, and the reality that in even the most livable community, architects, engineers and planners rarely design the public realm for children. A facebook page has been created with over 800 parents voicing their outrage and concern with unsafe conditions their children are facing.  

In general, parents worry first and foremost about their children’s safety. Second, about their children’s education.  And perhaps third, in this bustling Washington suburb where most households have both parents working, about a hassle free morning routine. This latest imbroglio touches on all three, and it need not be this way.  The lessons for Arlington, and all communities is simple:

1)      Distance is more than a number. As Walkscore demonstrates well, the willingness of people to walk between destinations is more than just a matter of how far away something is located. In the situation where children are involved, especially children walking without an adult, the notions of safe and easy walking may need to be expanded. This is especially true for a child biking to school versus a bike commuter, or the safety of an intersection at rush hour .  Despite all our progress, there still is more that planners and engineers can do to make our crosswalks and corridors safer for ALL users.

2)      Coordination and collaboration reaps benefits.  School Boards need to stop acting like they are separate and apart from local government.  Numerous opportunities existed this summer and fall for the School Board to collaborate with the County to provide information, education, and receive input before unveiling its new policy. Taking advantage of the many resources available through the County could have helped alleviate parent anxiety, promote safety, and been a wise use of the public funds.  In thinking about school siting and expansion decisions, coordination and communication is even more important.

3)      Today’s school children are tomorrow’s commuters.  The fact that middle school and high school students are taking to the streets to reach school should be a teachable moment to help instill biking and walking as legitimate ways of getting around, not as mere recreation activities (or a once a year event we call “Walk to School Day”) . Even better for teenagers, it helps to foster their independence. To achieve this takes some targeted outreach and education to youth. We should not assume the way to engage them is the same as reaching a 32 year old commuter. Just as parents seek to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, we can also work to instill smart commuting patterns.

ADDENDUM: Shortly after writing this blog I visited with former colleagues at Reconnecting America and saw the recent CTOD publication, "Families and Transit-Oriented Development" which has some great insights on Creating Complete Communities for All.