Biking and walking to school: Here’s what the data show

By From page A11 | February 09, 2014

By Robb Davis

Adults who grew up in Davis will often harken back to their experience as students, noting that “everyone” biked or walked to school in the past. Most cannot recall when the trend to driving children to school took off, but most would concur that bicycling and walking are at much lower levels than in the past. So, what proportion of students are bicycling or walking to school in Davis?

As part of its Safe Routes to School Program, elementary and junior high schools across the district conducted classroom tallies in early October 2013 of how students had arrived at or planned to leave school.

In addition to this effort, groups of volunteers and parents who are part of the Davis Bicycles! School Committee conduct monthly counts of bikes at bike racks. While these counts do not permit an assessment of walking habits, they can be compared to enrollment at the school to estimate the proportion of students bicycling to school.

The accompanying graphs summarize data from the classroom tallies and compare it to bike rack counts.

The first shows the data collected on the morning of Oct. 1 across all elementary schools in the district. Oct. 1 was a sunny day, with cool morning temperatures — a nearly perfect day for bicycling or walking. As a result, it is fair to assume that these results represent the high end of what might be expected for each school in terms of the proportion of students walking and biking.

The results are, perhaps, not surprising but interesting nonetheless. As expected, older students are more likely to bicycle to school but there is little difference by age group for walking.

Further, though the Patwin results are from few observations, one can seen that Patwin has overall much higher proportions bicycling and walking than other schools. This is not surprising given the relatively small “catchment” area of the school and that the school is a true “neighborhood” school with safe access by bike and on foot.

Of some surprise are the César Chávez results. This school has a Spanish immersion program and attracts students from across town. Despite this, its totals are not far below Pioneer and Montgomery — two neighborhood schools.

Also of interest, Pioneer fourth- through sixth-graders have bicycling and walking rates similar to others schools in the district but much lower rates for K-3. Regular cyclists in Davis hypothesize that this is due to two factors: Mace Boulevard, which acts as a major “safety barrier” for parents, and the narrow and heavily trafficked approach to the school.

The second graph shows results for the junior high schools. The Holmes results are particularly striking, with more than 60 percent of students bicycling or walking to school.

Bike rack counts were available only from Harper and Holmes for the junior highs.

What conclusions can we draw from this data? Most simply, on a good weather day, more than half of junior high students and nearly 40 percent of elementary school students bicycle or walk to school.

Is that good? Should we be satisfied with these results? The same data, of course, indicate that more than 60 percent of elementary and about half of junior high students are driven to school on these days — more than 4,000 students.

One way to encourage more students to ride and walk is to understand parents’ concerns and assess the challenges experienced by students as they bicycle or ride to school in order to improve conditions and deal with parental concerns. “Challenges” to encouraging bicycling and walking to school include unsafe intersections or crossings, poor off-street access to school property, distance, traffic congestion around schools, approaches that involve heavily trafficked streets (with high speeds) and uncertainty on the part of parents about the best, safest and most expeditious ways to get to school.

To assess these challenges, the Davis Safe Routes to School program — working with Alta Planning and Design, volunteers, principals and parents — conducted walk and bike audits of all elementary and junior high schools in the fall of 2013. These audits have led to a set of school-specific reports and draft maps. The reports address major safety challenges and infrastructure improvements that could help mitigate them. The maps provide suggested routes and approaches to each school.

All project documents are available at http://saferoutesdavis.org.

Please contact the city’s Street Smarts program director, Rachel Hartsough, at [email protected] for more information.

And, if you would like to get more involved in encouraging more bicycling at your student’s school, contact Trish Price at [email protected] or Christal Waters at [email protected] to learn more about the Davis Bicyles! Schools Committee.

In addition to conducting bike rack counts and participating in the audits, the DB! Schools Committee supports efforts to help children access bicycles and organizes parent volunteers to conduct student bike safety events — “bike rodeos” — at each school.

— Robb Davis is a community bicycling advocate and member of Davis Bicycles! He also has declared his candidacy for the Davis City Council.

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