Saturday, December 4, 2010

Walking for Change

Last September I was invited to attend Montgomery County's main media event for Walk to School Day at East Silver Spring Elementary School – the place where I organized the first such event in the county in 1999. On October 6, I was flanked by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown as County Executive Ike Leggett recognized my years of work to promote walking and walkable communities. It had been years since I had been involved with Walk to School Day, and the trip from the 3rd District Police station to the school was a stroll down memory lane for me.

Since those early years, Walk to School Day has become a popular event at many county schools and an essential element of Montgomery County’s pedestrian-safety education campaign. It is difficult to say whether or not 11 years of observing this special day has done anything to improve the pedestrian situation in our communities, yet I thought participating in Walk to School Day again after all these years might provide me with some useful perspective.

Walk to School Day was part of an effort to make the areas around the school more walkable. The routes leading to the school should be the best in the neighborhood -- not the worst. At the time, the Montgomery County government was just waking up to the problem.More than 100 pedestrians have died on county roads since then, and thousands more have been seriously injured. These numbers have improved only slightly over the years, but things are generally much better around schools than they were 11 years ago.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown

My kids are upperclassmen at Blair High School now, so it has been a long time since I walked to ESS with little kids. In 1997, my son, Will, entered kindergarten, and I walked him and his younger sister, Rachel, every school day. We moved here because the school was centrally located in the neighborhood, and I knew we could walk there. While most parents jump in their cars and race to the school when there is trouble, I had to run.

Even though the school was geographically close to homes, no route there was very walkable. Traffic speeds were high, especially during the periods when kids were walking to school. The sidewalks were narrow and obstructed by utility poles and fire hydrants. It seemed that the closer we got to the school, the worse the infrastructure became.

It was obvious that no one had given much thought to walking in the neighborhood for a long time. Fewer than 15 percent of the students made their way to school on foot in the mornings. The rest arrived by bus or were driven by their parents. A parade of minivans and SUVs lined in the school’s driveway each morning and afternoon. Bad sidewalks and inattentive motorists made parents feel that driving was the only safe way to get their kids to ESS. Because this was not an option for me, I decided to try and do something about the sidewalks instead.
My campaign began with calls to my councilmember, which soon led to new concrete sidewalks in a few locations around the school. The first Walk to School Day was a celebration of the new walkways and continued pressure to do more. It turned out that Walk to School Day was not only a community day but a chance for politicians to place themselves in photogenic situations with kids and safety mascots like McGruff the Crime Dog and the Crash Test Dummies. Hundreds of participants came out, including County Executive Doug Duncan and U.S. Rep. Al Wynn, among others. Over the next three years, federal officials, such as the surgeon general, the U.S. secretary of transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration heads made the pilgrimage to ESS to participate in Walk to School Day celebrations.

Car-centric Silver Spring residents usually don’t have much space in their busy brains for such a mundane topic. For most, bad sidewalks are overcome by driving. Walk to School Day was supposed to change that kind of thinking -- if only for the few minutes it took to walk to the school.

As a gateway to community change, Walk to School Day only partially delivered. The Montgomery County government embraced the event so tightly that it risked squeezing the life out of it altogether. Sometimes the media coverage took over, and the photo opportunities became more important than the message itself. However, this cynical interpretation always disintegrated when smiling and singing kids paraded their safety banners down the street with public officials and showed them what ordinary people are facing every day.

Even though the community was back to dodging cars and hopping over holes in the sidewalks the next day, Walk to School Day is at its core a hopeful event. It works on many levels, and the effects of such a program are not always evident at first.

Sure, public officials make use of the event to inflate their scant efforts, but there is also a subtle effect on public perception. The entire community rallied around this cause, and kids led the way. Perhaps this little shift in attitude will one day make a difference, and walking to school won’t remain something that is done only once a year.

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