FAIRFIELD — Six-year-old Leah Patel told her mother Neha Patel that she wanted to give the new “walking school bus” to Rolling Hills Elementary School a try Wednesday morning.
“Because I thought it would be healthier to,” Leah said at 7:35 a.m., as she waited for the short journey to start.
A walking school bus consists of parent volunteers who meet children at a certain place for a walk to and from school. The volunteers keep order and make certain the children are acting in a safe manner. The goal is to get parents more willing to let their children make the journey by foot or bike.
Usually, Neha Patel would drive her daughter to the school. This morning, they joined a group with more that 100 children for a third-of-a-mile walk from the Rolling Hills Neighborhood Park entrance to Rolling Hills Elementary School.
The Solano Transportation Authority wants to bring walking school buses to all 56 public elementary schools in the county as part of its Safe Routes to Schools program. It has so far established 13 walking school buses at 10 schools to get cars off the road and kids on their feet.
On Wednesday, the agency tried to put the program in the spotlight with some extra promotion to mark International Walk to School Day. It also debuted the Rolling Hills Elementary School version, with Solano County Supervisor Jim Spering and Solano Transportation Authority Executive Director Daryl Halls on hand to watch.
Organizers had no idea how many children would turn out at the park entrance at Glenwood Drive. They’d promoted the event at the school, but didn’t take registration. Parents could drive to the site, let their children walk the remaining distance and avoid the traffic mess in front of the school.
Lorraine Nitto and her two children were among the first to show up.
“I’ve never done it before and I want to see what it’s like,” 7-year-old Alexis Nitto said.
Lorraine Nitto usually drives her children the mile or so from their house to the school. She was glad to get out of the car. The street at the school is crowded with cars and it’s hard to find a parking spot, she said.
To the pleasure of organizers, the trickle of children coming to the park turned into a flood. Soon, they had enough children to fill a real school bus and then some.
A school bus needs a driver, even a walking school bus. Parent Steve Feudner took the role of making sure the children made it to school safely.
“There are cars,” he told the gathering at the park entrance. “Cars are very dangerous. You have to listen.”
Soon they were off, down the sidewalk along Glenwood Drive, past two peacocks in the park, then onto the sidewalk along Hilborn Road.
“Watch the mud,” Feudner said. “Stay to your left.”
A walking school bus helps alleviate traffic in front of schools, as well as air pollution, said Karin Bloesch, who helps organize the program for the Solano Transportation Authority. It gets the children moving, she said.
“They arrive at school alert and ready to learn,” she said.
The Safe Routes to School program goes beyond walking school buses. It includes doing such things as putting in crosswalks and sidewalks, trimming trees that block driver visibility, conducting traffic safety assemblies at schools and putting coverings over bike parking areas.
Feudner has his own item for the Safe Routes to School wish list. He said a crosswalk is needed on Glenwood Drive near the entrance to the park.
“It’s important, before a tragedy happens,” he said.
Creating a walking renaissance is bucking a trend. In 1968, 48 percent of children in grades kindergarten through eighth walked to school. That dropped to 13 percent in 2009, according to a report for the National Center for Safe Routes to School.
In addition, 89 percent of the children in 1969 living within a mile of school usually walked or biked to school. In 2009, only 35 percent did so even once a week, the report said.
Congress in 2005 passed the national Safe Routes to School program. The Solano Transportation Authority in 2008 launched the local version.
Twenty-two percent of Solano County students walked or biked to school in 2008. That percentage slightly declined by 2011, most likely because of school consolidations and bus service cuts, the draft Solano Safe Routes to School update said. The percentage of student walking or biking today is 24 percent.
The local Safe Routes to School program surveyed about 800 parents, asking what concerns exist about letting children walk and bike to school. Danger from strangers ranked No. 1 at 71 percent, followed by speeding traffic at 66 percent, too much traffic at 62 percent, bad weather at 62 percent and unsafe intersections at 60 percent, among other concerns.
In 2011, the Solano Transportation Authority received a $500,000 federal grant to use on establishing walking school buses at local schools. Money goes toward education, training and support for staff and parent volunteers, the draft Safe Routes to School update said.
Go to www.solanosr2s.ca.gov to learn more about the local Safe Routes to School program. People interested in starting a walking school bus at their school can call 399-3222 for more information.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.