April 30, 2015: No wheels on these “walking school busses”

April 30, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Kids from time immemorial have sung about how “the wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round.”

That tune doesn’t apply to the school busses serving Belmont’s Burbank Elementary School.

Each Wednesday, Burbank has four “walking school busses” that converge on the school in the morning, and deliver the kids safely back home in the afternoon.  Using different routes, Burbank’s busses make scheduled “stops” along their routes to pick-up and drop-off students.

According to Harriet Wong, co-president of the Burbank Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), the walking school bus is now in its second year of operation.  More than 60 kids travel to and from the Burbank using the walking school bus.

The walking school bus idea arose when a survey of Burbank families found that many parents who live “within five minutes” would still drive their kids to the school because of what Wong termed the “chaos” of the drop-off and parking.  According to Wong, those cars contributed even further to the problem.

With planning help from the state Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program, the Burbank PTA mapped impediments to walking to school such as inadequate signage, dangerous sidewalks and inadequate street crossings.  The PTA then developed potential walking routes, with “bus stops” along the way where kids could join and parents could drop their students off into safe hands.

The walking school bus initiative yields tremendous benefits to both young and old.  Melissa Green, the SRTS outreach coordinator serving Belmont, likened the school busses to the soccer sideline, with participating parents meeting each other and forming friendships.

The children, too, Green said, learn an active lifestyle that will serve them well throughout their lifetime. As with other life lessons, Green believes, the health and safety habits the kids learn through the walking school bus program “can only grow.”  The program, she says, advances “the slow path to a cultural shift” to get people out of their cars.

In addition, by identifying commonly used “commuting routes,” the PTA has helped the Town identify potential improvements in street crossings and traffic management patterns.

While the Burbank walking school busses run throughout the school year (excepting winter months), there will be particular attention focused on them on National Walk to School Day, May 6th.  On that day, Wong said, the PTA expects 250 kids to walk to school, two-thirds of Burbank’s entire student population.

In Wong’s mind, the walking school busses also generate benefits for all walkers in the Belmont community.  The school busses make walking “more visible,” she says.  One message that is conveyed, she continues, is for drivers to “slow down” and, particularly, to “respect the crosswalks.”  The school busses make a “very public statement that walking is valued in Belmont.”

The Butler school, too, will be joining the walking initiative.  Starting on National Walk to School Day, the Butler PTO will offer six “Walking Wednesdays” through the middle of June.  According to program coordinator and Butler parent Rose O’Neil, Butler students will be able to join walking caravans at five different locations and proceed to school under the supervision of parent volunteers.  Participating children are encouraged to wear blue to show their “Butler pride,” O’Neil says.  One objective, she says, is not simply to encourage the increased physical activity by the kids, but also to improve the drop-off experience for families who do still drive.

The phrase “the wheels sure came off that bus” is often used to refer to something that went substantially awry.  At Belmont’s Burbank and Butler schools, however, the wheels-free walking school bus refers to a safe and reliable car-free way to school.

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