In 1969, nearly half of all school children walked or biked to school. By 2014, that number dropped to around 17 percent, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & Trust for America’s Health. Factors such as suburban sprawl, increased automobile traffic, and increased perception of danger affect how parents get their students to school. Safe Routes to School started in the 1970s to address these issues, improve students’ safety, and increase physical activity. Since then, it has grown into an international movement designed to make walking and biking to school less intimidating and more fun.

By helping students safely walk or bike to school, it also helps them integrate healthy habits into their daily lives. Walking and biking to school can help children get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Safe Routes has other benefits including decreasing the risk for chronic diseases and injuries, improving attendance and academic performance, while reducing tardiness and traffic congestion.

In Billings, several schools are working on Safe Routes to School projects. Two schools are encouraging Walking School Buses, in which trained volunteers, called Route Leaders, walk with students along an established route. Students can join the Walking School Bus at set stops and times along the route. Students can have fun with friends and be more independent, while they remain under adult supervision. Parents who become route leaders can spend more time with their children and help their families be more active. Two pilot Walking School Bus programs will kick off this fall at Highland and McKinley elementary schools. Volunteers are needed as leaders.

Another effort to get more children walking to school is creative placemaking, which uses arts, culture, and creativity to improve and benefit a community. Healthy by Design, a community coalition, received a Space2Place grant from Big Sky Economic Development to use art to encourage students to walk and bike to school. Art can help improve problem traffic areas by increasing driver awareness. It can also make walking and biking to school more enjoyable. The grant will fund art projects this fall at Orchard and Newman Elementary schools.

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• Encourage students to walk and bike to school

• Volunteer for the Walking School Bus, by contacting me or signing up as a United Way volunteer at https://uwyellowstone.galaxydigital.com/

• Find out how to start your own Safe Routes program at https://www.saferoutespartnership.org/

• Join groups that advocate for safe walking and biking in Billings.

Safe Routes to School offers families a way to become more active and have fun doing it. Teaching students pedestrian safety tools and letting them practice is the best way to help them be safe and successful.

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Morgan Miller, a Prevention Health Specialist at RiverStone Health can be reached at 247-3276 or morgan.mil@riverstonehealth.org.