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GUEST OPINION: Encouraging safe routes to school

  • Dimitri Gortinsky,a sixh grade teacher at Sheppard School in Santa Rosa, rides his bike with his students on International Walk to School Day in 2009. (MARK ARONOFF / The Press Democrat)

In 1969, when I was a junior in high school, what I wanted most of all was to drive my parents’ Camaro to school — to travel the half-mile back and forth in that car, and get in and out of it in the school’s parking lot with everybody watching.

My parents didn’t very often turn over any of their cars to their newly licensed 16-year-old daughter. I car-pooled, walked or bicycled to high school while friends farther away rode the bus.

Back then, nearly 50 percent of children in the United States usually walked or bicycled to school. Today, that number is down to 13 percent. As a result, kids are less active, less independent and less healthy. With less bus service, our roads to school are crowded as parents making hurried deliveries on their way to work.

Today, transportation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 60 percent of total emissions. School transportation alone accounts for 20 to 25 percent of morning traffic nationally and, in Sonoma County, typically more than 50 percent of students are driven in single-family vehicles.

Walking and bicycling to school address these issues. Exercise is healthier for students; the morning bottleneck to school is lessened; and, with fewer cars on the road, being in transit to school is safer.

As the mayor of Sebastopol and a member of Health Action, I want our youth to be healthy and safe. In line with our city’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I want Sebastopol families to drive fewer trips under one-half mile. And I’m encouraged that we are working actively to accomplish these goals.

Our Safe Routes to School Program has started changing our behaviors. I see more and more kids and parents on the sidewalk and on their bikes each school day.

Our program educates students and parents about how to safely walk and bike to school through classroom curriculum based on the California state standards, school assemblies and bike rodeo events that teach riding skills. It encourages students with incentives such as the Frequent Walker/Biker program and raffle prizes on our weekly Walk and Roll to School Wednesdays.

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