Go! Chapel Hill: Sidewalks, Crosswalks and Beyond!
The Go! Chapel Hill Active Living by Design project is paving the way for kids to walk to school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Sidewalks, crosswalk improvements and additional school warning signs have been added to several school areas as a result of the program. The partnership has made the area around Ephesus Elementary, Scroggs Elementary, Estes Hills Elementary and Phillips Middle School more supportive for children and parents to walk or bike to school. Through these efforts, Chapel Hill was selected as a model program in North Carolina to launch the statewide Safe Routes to School Program this past September.
David Bonk, Transportation Planner for Chapel Hill and Director of the Go! Chapel Hill partnership, led the pilot project at Ephesus Elementary School. The school is located in an older neighborhood where there was unrealized potential. Many of the students live within one mile of the school and can walk rather than be driven or bussed. Bonk enlisted the help of enthusiastic parents who had previously participated in the Walk to School Day. In teams of two to three, parents conducted a walking audit of the area around the school. Each team followed consistent evaluation criteria, and their results were combined into a report delivered to the town's planning staff. The audits found a critical need for improvements to the physical environment surrounding the school, specifically the creation of new sidewalks, crosswalks and flashing school zone signage.
The proposed improvements were evaluated by the town's administration in terms of ease of implementation, greatest need, and required funding. Painting new sidewalks in coordination with Public Works was implemented through existing street improvement programs. However, the more expensive requests, such as connecting two existing sidewalks, are on a waiting list for funding from the town's Capitol Improvements Program.
Lessons learned from Ephesus Elementary School are now being applied to other local schools. Estes Elementary and Phillips Middle School have physical environments similar to Ephesus and show potential to support these types of improvements. Parents and school administrators from Estes and Phillips joined town staff and other community leaders in a walking assessment conducted as part of a National Safe Routes to School Workshop. Participants determined that the area surrounding the school needed a number of improvements, including crosswalks, the repair or construction of sidewalks, trimming bushes that block vision, several stop signs and the inclusion of a 'no turn on red sign' to promote pedestrian safety and flow.
As a result of the workshop, suggested improvements were implemented quickly in the two-school area. "The need for physical activity transcends location," Bonk said. "You have to consider other factors that come into play, such as crime and traffic." The partnership is working to overcome these obstacles in a number of creative ways, such as establishing drop-off points one-half mile from the school and conducting a program with physical activity self-report classroom posters that allow kids to track their physical activity in and out of school. Bonk continues, "You have to be creative and adapt to your local situation." Accordingly, the Chapel Hill Partnership continues to look for ways to make improvements to the physical environment around all schools.
Go! Chapel Hill Active Living by Design partnership currently has five schools participating in the Active Schools program. Active Schools include not only design but also programming to encourage use of design elements such as bicycle lanes or sidewalks. Additional schools participating in Go! Chapel Hill Active Routes include Scroggs and Rashkis Elementary Schools. Programming includes Walking Wednesdays, International Walk to School Days, a student Go! Club and Class Activity Report Calendars.
When working with student programs there are barriers to overcome, such as liability issues, student equity, safety, challenges in working with state-owned roads and limited volunteers to accomplish everything that needs to be done. Despite such issues, which inevitably occur when addressing programming and community design, the Go! Chapel Hill partnership has been successful in moving forward with determination, a healthy spirit and passion for Active Living by Design!