Keep kids safe and active

Charles L. Mason Jr. is the California policy director for the Surface Transportation Policy Project

As any older Californian reminisces about his or her childhood, you’ll most likely hear stories about walking or bicycling to and from school. Walking and biking were a part of everyday life, and kids were able to get around on their own most of the time.

Times have changed. New survey data from the California Department of Transportation show that California children now make about three-quarters (74.3 percent) of all their trips in automobiles, and walking and bicycling now account for just 16 percent of children’s trips. Traffic is the leading cause of accidental death and injury for California’s children.

Many new schools are being built in areas that are far from homes, requiring longer trips, most of them by car. In California, school-bus programs have been severely reduced or eliminated by many districts, making students more dependent on their parents to drive them to school. California ranks dead last among all the states in the percentage of children who ride school buses, with only 17 percent of students using them.

This “child shuttling” is taking a serious toll on parents’ pocketbooks, too: Two-parent families now spend more than twice as much on children’s transportation as they do on children’s health care, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fortunately, there is a great program in place, called Safe Routes to School, designed to alleviate the difficulty of transporting children to school. This program gives federal dollars to California to improve street safety, add bicycle lanes and build traffic lights and crosswalks. It gets kids on their feet, on their bikes and on their way to school.

Safe Routes to School has received nothing but accolades. In fact, in the program’s first four funding cycles, more than 1,500 applications were received, but there were funds available for only 273 projects. These numbers reflect the overwhelming need for this program in school districts all across California.

In times of tight budgets, it’s important to prioritize our funding. Keeping our children safe when walking and biking to school should continue to be one of California’s top priorities. We should encourage the state Legislature and governor to continue funding this successful program, which has gone a long way toward improving the health, safety and independent mobility of California’s youngest residents.