Maine children hit their stride with bicycling, walking initiatives

This article originally appeared in the Portland Sun.

Maine children hit their stride with bicycling, walking initiatives

Published Date Tuesday, 07 May 2013 21:01

Written by David Carkhuff

Wednesday is National Bike to School Day, but leave it to Maine to pedal harder and faster than the rest of the nation.
“In Maine we’ve gone to looking at the whole month of May as walking and biking to school month,” said Darcy Whittemore, program manager for the Maine Safe Routes to School program. “We’re hoping that people get in the habit and like the idea of walking and biking to school daily.”5-8-bike-swap-1
A first-in-the-state Walking School Bus program in Portland has hit the ground running, evidence that kids and exercise do mix, even if it’s in the morning en route to school.
Officials with Maine’s federally funded Safe Routes to School Program are promoting a raft of biking- and walking-related activities at local schools.
And Wednesday afternoon at City Hall, the city hopes to attract residents to a meeting about a proposed Bikeshare initiative, a program in which bicycles are made available for shared use for short-distance trips as an alternative to motorized public transit or private vehicles.
 
There are other signs that young and old alike are open to stretching their legs rather than riding in cars. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine reported one of its most successful Great Maine Bike Swaps ever. Held April 28 at the University of Southern Maine, the swap attracted more than 2,000 people; and 700 cyclists walked away with new bicycles, the coalition reported.
 
“We hear all this stuff about how it’s hard to get kids outdoors, but there’s tons of kids who still want bikes, and it’s just magical just watching them jump on,” said Nancy Grant, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine.
“We had absolutely every type of bike imaginable at this event,” Grant said in the final hours of the swap, noting that “lots of families with kids” attended. Clark reported “as many bikes as ever, we sold almost everything,” with roughly 1,000 bikes on the floor. For the first time, anybody who wanted to sell a bike could register the bike online, a “huge improvement,” Clark added.
Walking School Bus program

A pilot program started with Reiche School and East End Community School, the Walking School Bus program is “growing in interest every day,” according to Whittemore. Maine Safe Routes to School program is one of the partners who launched this walk-rather-than-ride alternative for school children last month.

 
Portland became the first city in Maine to have a coordinated and regularly operating Walking School Bus program, and with strong response, the plan is to expand to additional Portland elementary schools beginning next fall, organizers noted. The program, a collaboration between the Portland Public Schools and the Maine Safe Routes to School program, is funded through a federal Safe Routes to School grant and closely involves the Portland Police Department and the Healthy Portland Let’s Go! program.
 
The idea is simple: A Walking School Bus is a group of students, supervised by a trained adult volunteer, who walk along a designated route to and/or from school on a daily basis. Children can join the Walking School Bus at stops along the route near their homes. Families can also drop off their children at a collection point, such as a nearby park, to join the procession.
 
Program director Betsy Critchfield said response since the program started on April 24 has been “fabulous,” and she said the benefits have extended beyond exercise.
 
“I’ve had parents tell me this has been life-changing,” Critchfield said, pointing to “touching and sincere emails and phone messages” she has received from parents at both schools “who have expressed what a great difference this has made in their children’s lives.”
 
“We’ve got close to 60 kids walking now from the East End alone. Reiche, it’s a smaller group, it’s just as consistent,” Critchfield said Monday.
 
“We’re running five days a week in the morning, which to start out is quite a success. We’ve got lots more volunteers trickling in, and we’re gearing up to hopefully start offering some afternoon routes as well,” she said.
Participating children “look forward to waking up and going to school,” and they are able to connect with neighbors along the route, Critchfield noted.  Whittemore said volunteers are key to the program’s success since many supervisors can assure the children’s safety.
 
“We really emphasize safety first,” she said. “Our main goal is to offer a safe form of transportation to school for kids, that’s active,” Whittemore said. “Thirty kids coming from Kennedy Park and crossing Washington Avenue” requires attention of motorists as well, a common element to all of the state’s bicycling and walking initiatives. Drivers need to pay attention, organizers noted. “One of our routes started with 10 kids and it’s grown to almost 30,” Whittemore said.
Leaders will follow a route of up to one mile, picking up children along the way at designated stops. “The program offers volunteers a way to get regular exercise and to interact with young people in the neighborhood,” Whittemore noted. Parents benefit as well, she agreed. “It relieves a big burden for people who are juggling multiple kids and early work, it’s a benefit to the parents that their kids are getting to school safely, but also the people who have volunteered say it’s a wonderful thing for them,” she said. “Hopefully it’s a model that we can replicate and adapt to different neighborhoods,” Whittemore said, noting that Lyseth Elementary and Riverton Elementary are candidates to start in the fall. The program continues to welcome volunteers this spring. All volunteers receive an hour of training, and a criminal background check is required, at no cost to the volunteers. To learn more, visit www.portlandwalkingschoolbus.org, or contact Critchfield, at betsy@bikemaine.org or 200-5287.

Maine Safe Routes to School grants

Mini-grants for up to $250 can give a nudge for healthier transportation options, Whittemore said.
“It just adds enough of a carrot so that a teacher or maybe a school nurse or someone who is working with the Healthy Maine Partnerships, as long as they put a team together and plan several activities for biking or walking to school, it’s a fairly easy thing to accomplish in a short amount of time,” she said. Maine’s federally funded Safe Routes to School Program is a program of the Maine Department of Transportation, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and communities throughout the state. This spring, 15 schools, municipalities and organizations from across the state were picked to receive up to $250 to support projects designed to encourage students and their families to safely walk and bicycle to school and after-school activities. The mini-grant activities, some led by students, will occur this spring.
Those include, in Portland, Lincoln Middle School, which plans: Walk and Bike to School Week; the start of a year-round, student-led Safe Routes to School group with adult facilitator; and Student Travel Tally. Portland’s Lyseth Elementary School, which plans: Bike rodeo; distribution of new helmets and used bikes to students in need, with assistance of the Multilingual Center and a local bike shop; Bike to School Day on May 8; installation of a much-needed bike rack for upper elementary wing; and Student Travel Tally. “For not a lot of money, you get a lot of things happening,” Whittemore noted. “It brings more awareness to the program and to safety,” she said, noting that children can buy reflective zipper-pulls and vests among the accessories.  “We’ve seen, beyond Portland, there are more and more schools who are developing in-school fleets of bicycles so they can teach biking during P.E. class,” Whittemore said. Kennebunk Elementary School is one example of a school with a bike fleet. After-school bike clubs also are popular.  “I think more and more parents are understanding that they would like their children to be more active, and walking and biking to school is one way to accomplish that,” Whittemore said.  For more information, visit MaineSafeRoutes.org.

Wednesday, May 8

Lincoln Middle School — Walk and Bike to School Week, May 6-10; Lyseth School — National Bike to School Day on May 8; Walk to School Day and Bike Rodeo; Ocean Avenue Elementary — Monthly Walk and Roll to School Days all year, Bike Rodeo in June. 

Communities already registered to participate in walk and bike activities this spring include: Bangor, Bath, Biddeford, Bridgton, Camden, Fort Kent, Gray, Hampden, Kennebunk, Lewiston, Lincolnville, Madawaska, Madison, Milford, Monmouth, Naples, New Gloucester, North Berwick, Oakland, Pittsfield, Portland, Rangeley, Raymond, Saco, Scarborough, Sebago, South Portland, Topsham, Winterport and York. For events across Maine, visit www.maine.gov/tools/whatsnew/index.php?topic=DOT_bikeped_news&id=519541&v=full.

Proposed travel changes in Libbytown

5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Long separated by I-295, the Libbytown neighborhood is emerging as an important entryway to the city of Portland and an integral link between the downtown and the Portland Transportation Center. However, multiple highway ramps and side streets confuse travelers, and with Congress Street a major traffic corridor, the area is difficult to navigate, especially for bicyclists and pedestrians. The four proposed sets of changes include various combinations of eliminating exit and entrance ramps to I-295 and making Park and Congress Streets one or two-way. All scenarios include improving the area for bikers and walkers. The study will also make recommendations for better lighting, landscaping and other streetscape elements. To give people more options in terms of opportunity to comment, individual displays illustrating the proposed changes will be available from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. for comments, with staff available to answer questions. A more formal presentation on the neighborhood conditions and the proposed changes will also take place from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. The public is welcome to come to the entire meeting or any portion that is convenient. Portland City Hall, Room 24, 389 Congress St. For more information, visithttp://www.portlandmaine.gov/libbytowntrafficcirculation.htm or contact Carol Morris atcmorris@morriscomm.net. Diagrams of the proposals can be seen athttp://www.portlandmaine.gov/libbytowntraffic/libbytownalternatives042213.pdf. Public comments can also be made online at the city’s website, http://www.ci.portland.me.us.

Bikeshare Public Forum

5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. The city of Portland will host a Bikeshare Public Forum at City Hall. The public is invited to participate in the conversation about establishing a Bikeshare program in the city, share their thoughts and ideas and ask questions. The meeting is a component of a technical assistance grant the city received in February from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities program. The EPA selected the City of Portland as one of five communities nationwide to receive technical assistance to explore the potential of establishing a Bikeshare program. City Hall, State of Maine Room, 389 Congress St., Portland. Visit http://www.ci.portland.me.us.

Sunday, June 2

Ride for women in Freeport
8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ride for women in Freeport, LL Bean’s Casco Conference Center, Casco Street, Freeport. This all-female ride is suited for girls and women of all ages and fitness levels, with distances of 10, 25, 50 and 75 miles.  The ride offers beautiful views of the countryside and coast. Begin or end the ride with a free massage. The pre-registration fee is $35 (members) and $45 (public rate, including a six-month trial membership in the Bicycle Coalition of Maine), with a $10 discount for children 12-17 and seniors (over 65). Children under 12 ride free.  Proceeds benefit the Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s work to improve bicycling in Maine. For more information, a video about the ride and online registration, go to http://www.bikemaine.org/events/womens-ride or call 623-4511.

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