Give High School Students Healthy Transportation Choices, Too

We all recognize the signs of a livable community: people biking and kids walking safely around their neighborhoods. These are important forms of commuting that also contribute to a community’s vitality. This is especially true for children, who should be able to securely walk and bike to their most important destinations: schools, parks, and their friends’ homes.

Fortunately, the federal government has recognized the importance of providing our children with safe and convenient ways to walk and bike to school. In 2005, building on the success of the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs in California, Oregon, and other states, Congress included the Safe Routes to School Program in the federal transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU. Under this 5-year, $612 million program, states receive funding for both infrastructure – such as sidewalks, street crossings, and bicycle facilities within two miles of a school – and non-infrastructure elements, including public awareness campaigns, traffic education, and enforcement.

As of last January, more than 4,500 schools from all 50 states and the District of Columbia participate in the National Safe Routes to School Program. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, 85 percent of the city’s public elementary schools are part of the Safe Routes to School program. In communities of all sizes and in all regions of our country, these programs are creating remarkable benefits for our communities, our families, and children’s health.
According to the July 2008 National SRTS Task Force Report, if 100 students walked or bicycled instead of being driven every day for one school year, they would collectively generate 12,000 hours of physical activity. This is important physical activity that we should be instilling in our children.

Five years after it was enacted, it’s clear that the National Safe Routes to School Program has been highly successful, but what happens when the children who’ve been so actively walking and biking move on to high school? The Safe Routes to School Program addresses only primary, elementary, and middle schools, which is why I introduced the Safe Routes to High School Act (H.R. 4021) last November. This bill would extend the existing National Safe Routes to School Program to high schools. This bill would not change the existing funding levels; instead, high schools would have to compete with primary, elementary, and middle schools for the same pot of federal money. However, the Safe Routes to High School Act would give priority to projects aimed at K-8 schools, or to school district programs that target primary, middle, and high school programs simultaneously.

Maintaining a healthy level of physical activity is vital for teens. Obesity rates for children between the ages of 12 and 19 have more than tripled in the past 15 years, with 17.6 percent of high school age children now classified as obese. This is not just a matter of personal health and well-being, although that alone would justify action. The growing obesity rate also has a profound impact on the long term health of our nation. Eighty percent of obese children grow up to become obese adults, putting them at a higher risk for diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and other chronic health conditions.  As those obese adults age, they experience an increasing number of health problems, limiting their own opportunities for a fruitful life, reducing our nation’s productivity, and increasing the long-term burden on our healthcare system.

High school students also have the greatest need for independent, flexible, and low-cost transportation choices, especially in lean economic times. Walking and biking can safely meet at least some of their transportation choices, but only if they have safe and convenient access to their schools.

We all know the importance of developing healthy habits at an early age. The national Safe Routes to School Program has already helped primary, elementary, and middle school students develop active habits. It’s time to give our high school students the same opportunity to continue these habits and maintain healthy transportation choices.


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