by Dennis Dalman
It’s a classic “Catch-22” situation: Sartell students who might consider walking or biking to school are concerned about all the traffic on roads near school, and parents (worried about heavy traffic near schools) drive their children to school rather than let them walk or bike due to the safety hazards of heavy traffic.
That’s one of the conundrums pondered by members of the Safe Routes to School committee, which has been researching such safety issues for many months before drafting a Safe Routes to School plan. The highly detailed, comprehensive study, recently approved by the Sartell City Council, is entitled “Pine Meadow Elementary and Sartell Middle School Safe Routes to School Plan.”
Anyone who has driven the streets on mornings or afternoons near Pine Meadow Elementary or Sartell Middle School can well understand the safety concerns of parents and students. Those streets become a bumper-to-bumper parade of hectic traffic, with many areas of blind spots and lessened visibility. However, the SRTS committee and others are determined to remedy the situation to make routes to and from schools much safer for pedestrians and bikers. That goal is the crux of the SRTS program, a program devised by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Sartell has received widespread praise for its approach to SRTS, for its detailed, comprehensive research; for its grant applications; for its analysis of all relevant data; for its strategies; and for its implementations. The city is considered a model of superb SRTS planning, and other cities are using Sartell’s methods to adapt for their own future plans.
An SRTS plan will also be developed for Oak Ridge Elementary and for the Sartell High School, which will tie in to the plans for Pine Meadow Elementary and the middle school. The biggest challenge for Oak Ridge is to someday extend a sidewalk or walking-biking trail all the way north to Oak Ridge.
How many walk/bike?
Very few Sartell students walk or bike to school, according to data collected by the SRTS committee.
Like most Minnesota cities – and cities elsewhere – there has been a marked increase of students who get to school via other forms of transportation, such as buses, public transportation or rides with parents or neighbors.
A survey taken in October 2013 showed only 1 to 2 percent of Pine Meadow Elementary students walked to school and virtually none biked. Rather, 58 percent rode the school bus, 38 percent rode in a family vehicle, 1 percent rode in a car pool and 1 percent used “other transit.”
For Sartell Middle School, the numbers were higher. Six to 7 percent walked, 2 percent biked, 47 percent took the school bus, 40 percent rode in a family vehicle, 5 to 6 percent car-pooled and less than 1 percent used some other form of transportation.
Those Sartell statistics match quite closely the ones from throughout the nation.
One reason biking-hiking seems to have declined is because in recent decades, the “neighborhood” school has become, in many places a thing of the past, with more schools being constructed at the edges of a city or even beyond. Other reasons for the decline in walking/biking is students and parents are leery of increased traffic of all kinds, busy schedules that vary day to day and fears about crimes such as abductions or random assaults.
Why not walk/bike?
In Sartell, based on surveys for Pine Cone Elementary, safety of intersection crossings is the number-one reason that dissuades children from walking or biking or for their parents forbidding them to do so. Next in line of concerns are the volume of traffic, speed of traffic, distance from school, lack of crossing guards, lack of adults to walk-bike with students, inclement weather, lack of sidewalks-pathways, fear of exposure to crime or violence, and the hassle-free convenience of being driven in a car.
The reasons are similar for Sartell Middle School students, in slightly different order, but one factor important at the middle-school level is participation in after-school programs and additional time needed to bike or walk to school, time that takes away from busy schedules in the morning or after school.
Where do they live?
Forty-five percent of the approximately 700 students at Pine Meadow Elementary live within a mile or so from their school – that is, about a mile or less.
About 33 percent of middle-school students live within a mile of their school.
Even though quite a few students live in neighborhoods fairly near those two schools, most of them do not walk or bike to school because of the reasons listed above.
Pine Meadow Elementary and Sartell Middle School are located not far from the high school, thus complicating the morning and afternoon traffic congestion, especially on 7th Street N. and Pinecone Road.
In addition, there are businesses in that area, including a gas station-convenience store, a mini-mall, neighborhoods and apartment complexes, as well as city hall and the businesses to the south along Pinecone Road and 2nd Street S.
There are about 6,100 vehicles per day on Pinecone Road, according to 2009 statistics from MnDOT. The speed limit on that road is 40 mph. On 7th Street N. there are about 2,000 vehicles per day. However, those numbers dramatically increase during morning drop-offs and afternoon pick-ups at the schools.
From 2003-12, there were 112 collisions within one-half mile or closer to Pine Meadow Elementary. Two involved pedestrians struck by vehicles; two involved vehicles colliding with bicycles. Of those four collisions, two happened in a marked crosswalk. One pedestrian was 15 years old; one bicyclist was 17 years old.
Near Sartell Middle School, there were 59 accidents in that same time period, from 2003-13. In two cases, vehicles struck pedestrians, both on 7th Street N. In one of the two incidents, two pedestrians were struck by the same vehicle at the same time while the pedestrians were crossing a marked intersection. Fortunately, none of the injuries in any of the above accidents was life-threatening.
On Oct. 28, 2013, the SRTS committee members and others conducted a site audit by the schools. Some walked or biked routes to school.
All participants were impressed that vehicle flow at the schools, drop-offs and pick-ups, were “very efficient and orderly” for cars and buses both.
The SRTS committee, after its plan was written, recommends several factors to enhance safety and to encourage walking and biking to the schools.
They include ongoing maintenance for sidewalks, trails and crosswalks, with the latter’s stripes being repainted at least annually; the creation of walk-and-bike maps, digital speed signs along with targeted police enforcement; year-round crossing guards; and road improvements on Pinecone Road. All of those recommendations are already in the works for the near future.
In addition, a variety of public-education efforts should be encouraged, including ways to get children (and parents) to recognize the physical and educational benefits of walking or biking to school, whenever the weather permits. Such efforts include walk-bike safety programs in the schools, a Fit Kids Club, and awards, prizes and other forms of recognition for walkers and bikers.
A big boost for SRTS is the $500,000 state SRTS grant the city received, which will be used to install a sidewalk on the north side of 2nd Street S. all the way from the police-station area west to Pinecone Road.
The city council’s policy of installing walking-biking-hiking paths, including throughout new commercial and residential developments, has resulted in Sartell having an excellent interconnected trail system, which is one of the bedrocks of a good SRTS program.
Another boost is the annual Bike Rodeo for children sponsored by the Sartell Police Department.
More programs are planned, all involving a network of city and county staff, police, school officials, parents and public health.
Those involved with SRTS have noted that improving the city’s transportation infrastructure (for both motorists and pedestrians) will enhance safety and quality of life, a win-win for one and all.
The SRTS committee members are the following: Tara Berger, parent; Jodi Gertken, CentraCare Health BLEND; Therese Haffner, Sartell city administrative assistant; Greg Johnson, PME principal; Dawn Moen, BLEND, Mike Nielson, Sartell city engineer; Danessa Sandmann, BLEND; Julie Tripp, SMS principal; Amy Trombley, communications director for the school district; Mike Spanier, former interim superintendent.
BLEND, which stands for “Better Living: Exercise and Nutrition Daily,” is a program developed by CentraCare Health of Central Minnesota to promote healthy living. BLEND representatives have been instrumental in helping Sartell plan and develop its SRTS program.