In a report put together through the local Blue Zones Project team, several recommendations were made to improve walkability around Horace Mann Elementary School. With help from the local Safe Routes Committee, a walking audit of the area and suggestions from Blue Zones Built Environment expert Dan Burden, the focus and direction of a plan is beginning to come together.

In a report put together through the local Blue Zones Project team, several recommendations were made to improve walkability around Horace Mann Elementary School. With help from the local Safe Routes Committee, a walking audit of the area and suggestions from Blue Zones Built Environment expert Dan Burden, the focus and direction of a plan is beginning to come together.

The goal is to get children more physically active by walking or biking to and from school, all while easing the minds of nervous parents.

For the sake of safety, families have opted in recent years to drive or bus their little ones to school.

Project Manager Taylor Shekarabi, Pottawatomie County Blue Zones Project, in a quick poll through a show of hands at a recent Shawnee Planning Commission meeting, demonstrated how most students from past generations had experienced walking or riding bicycles to school — whereas today's students, for the most part, do not.

According to Dan Burden, director of Innovation and Inspiration for Blue Zones, this shift in physical activity — or actually inactivity — could well be a real cause for concern.

“Today's children may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to lifestyle choices,” he said in the report. “Active transportation is a great way of ensuring that children are getting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity daily.”

Shekarabi said a widely held perception is that neighborhoods are no longer a safe place to allow children to travel alone.

“It's just one of those things where you don't feel like it's as safe anymore, and some of it is just built environment,” she said. “We are just much more aware of safety features that could exist that do not currently exist.”

Surveys were done in three area schools; Horace Mann was chosen as its audit site.

“Dan Burden is listed as one of the top urbanists in the country,” Shekarabi said. “He came in and looked at the site — the community was invited, as well.”

Burden gave some feedback on what currently exists and then offered a toolbox of suggestions for improvements.

Shekarabi said among items parents felt were of concern were:

• lack of sidewalks

• sidewalks needing repair

• crossing streets with heavy traffic

• elevated crime or presence of child predators

• does not want child to walk alone

• live outside school district (distance is too far)

• safety — inattention of drivers, disregard of posted speed limits, stop signs or traffic lights

Burden made several suggestions on how to ease operation of drop-offs and pick-ups before and after school:

• allowing a five-minute head-start for walkers and bikers

• having volunteers who could open car doors and direct traffic flow

• separating the bus arrival from the parent line

• having parents park nearby and walk children to school grounds

• working with the police department to encourage correct procedure in the school zone (strict enforcement)

• require parents to be at the front of the line before letting a child out of the car

• separate pick-ups and drop-offs by grade level (for second-grade or younger — parents must park and walk child inside; for third-grade and up — use traditional zone system)

One issue that repeatedly came up was current speed limits on nearby streets.

Burden said higher speeds increase the likelihood and severity of crashes, while lower speeds improve safety.

“Survival for a pedestrian is directly tied to vehicle speed,” he said. “Engage the City Council to craft a resolution that reduces the default speed limit around schools at 20 miles per hour.”

Right now, streets are marked at 30 and 35 mph around Horace Mann — too high for a school zone, he said.

Also, mini circles and/or painted intersections can be used to reduce traffic flow, he said.

“Roundabouts reduce personal injury crashes by 90 percent and have been recognized as a proven safety countermeasure by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration and the National Insurance Institute, with each encouraging communities to choose a 'roundabouts first' approach to intersection design,” Burden said.

Other items, such as planting more trees and changing traditional parking spaces were among options, too.

The Safe Routes Committee will keep building a plan over the summer, and more data will be gathered — like audits of primary streets and intersections.

The group will meet with agencies that can help with the project, like ODOT (grants) and SPD (enforcement); and within the next year the goal is to develop at least one funding proposal to advance a Safe Routes project.

Watch for updates.