Jacqueline Villnave had a tough first year at Sunnyside Environmental School.
As an organizer with the city's Safer Routes to School program, Villnave's job is to advance the options of walking and biking, and to help make those choices safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
One might think such a task at the K-8 environmental-studies magnet school at Sunnyside would have been a cakewalk. But even residents of environmentally aware Portland can resist walking and biking, as evidenced by the hostile reaction Villnave got from some parents last year at the Southeast Portland school.
"I'm never going to walk or bike to school," was the response of one Sunnyside mom to Villnave's pitch. Later, Villnave and a city transportation staffer saw a mom behind the wheel of an SUV in a no-parking zone, blocking bike access. "When we asked her to move, she flipped us the bird," Villnave recalls.
Some parents might think the safest route to school is in the back of a Hummer. But Villnave's project—a joint effort of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Willamette Pedestrian Coalition—looks at safety from the perspective of the environment, community and kids' physical well-being.
With Wednesday, Oct. 3, deemed Walk to School Day by national supporters of the idea, here are some pluses that Villnave and others cite for not driving kids to school.
Fewer cars in front of schools means cleaner air for kids. More kids and parents walking near their schools means each is safer. More biking and walking means less childhood obesity and kids arriving more mentally alert if they get exercise. And biking and walking help reduce traffic congestion.
The city's Office of Transportation, which has funded Safer Routes to School with about $1.3 million over a three-year period through next year, would like to minimize twice-a-day car trips for the district's 47,000 students. Nationally, it's estimated that about a quarter of morning and afternoon commuters are parents and guardians driving kids to and from school.
Villnave says her program is benefiting from greater environmental awareness. But in some ways district and national policies are pushing the other way.
By closing and consolidating schools, Portland Public Schools is increasing distances kids must travel. Magnet schools, which the district calls "special focus," require more cross-town trips.
That's true even at Sunnyside, where 337 kids, or 67 percent, come from outside the neighborhood. Districtwide, about one-third of elementary and middle-school kids—and 40 percent of high-school students—attend a school other than their neighborhood school.
And thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind mandate, the district hands out 1,600 TriMet bus passes a month to transport high- and middle-school students when their neighborhood schools are deemed to have "failed."
Villnave says she just got off to a bad start at Sunnyside; if anything, the school is shaping up to be bike central in a city that's already a cycletopia. Of the 19 elementary schools participating in Safe Routes to School, Sunnyside was tops for bike-riding last year, with 10 percent of the school's 501 students saying they pedaled to school.
For the record, Rosa Parks Elementary kids were the district's top walkers, with 53 percent of the 435 students getting to the North Portland school on foot this spring.
Walkable, bikeable schools aren't just a Portland thing—they're part of a national movement. Two years ago, Congress appropriated $612 million over five years to help communities create safer routes to schools. Portland is now applying for a share of that funding, which means the city can follow up Villnave's site visits with infrastructure improvements to make it safer for students and parents who take up her call.
"I want kids to ride bikes," says Sunnyside principal Sarah Taylor, who cycles seven miles each way from St. Johns. "When you ride a bike, the whole world is transformed."
ACT: To plug into International Walk-to-School Day, find a carpool or get maps of the safest routes to your kids' school, visit saferoutesportland.org.