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Montana To Parents, Kids: We Know It's Winter -- But You Can Still Walk & Bike To School

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - 03:01 PM

(Billings, MT – YPR) – A Montana school launched a walk/bike to school initiative -- even though it's January.

Nicole Chakos is the acting president of the Highland Elementary Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA). She says she was inspired to go ahead with the the winter launch after watching three boys ride their bikes to school one day in December.

“It was a beautiful day,” Chakos says. “But a beautiful day in Montana is, I think it was 28 (degrees F) in the morning, but the roads were clear. And it really hit me and I thought, ‘You know, the kids, they can do this.’”

The Montana Safe Routes to School coordinated urges students to continue walking and biking to school through the winter. Taylor Lonsdale has issued a friendly challenge to Montana schools, saying Alaska and New Hampshire have active programs. “So I’ve tried to frame it as ‘We’re Montanans. We’re not going to let people in New Hampshire do this if we can’t do it.’”

Zap machine at Highland Elementary School

“We live in Montana,” Lonsdale says. “Winter weather is a reality for all of us but that doesn’t mean that our lives stop. That doesn’t mean we stop being outside and active.” He says many Montana families with children participate in winter activities -  snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, or downhill skiing - so what’s different about walking to school, he asks.

As an incentive at Highland Elementary, the PTSA installed Boltage. It uses what it calls a Zap machine to track mileage when a student gets to school in any way other than being driven.

The Zap is a solar-powered, wi-fi internet enabled machine that reads a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that’s issued to participating students.  Highland Elementary is the first Montana school to have a Boltage program.

As participating students accumulate days walked/biked, they receive small rewards -- in this case colored rubber wrist bands stamped “Highland Boltage.” The PTSA also plans to hand out stickers, temporary tattoos, and other prizes as incentives to encourage kids to walk or bike to school.

Highland Parent Nancy Dimich says for her son, walking and biking is more than that. She says what motivates her son and his friends is the camaraderie.

“When they get together, and there’s three of them, they take off happy as clams because they’re free,” Dimich says. “I think there’s a sense of liberty.” She says when she joins them to walk to school the boys talk non-stop.  She thinks the walking and talking gets them ready for the school day. “I truly believe they’re coming to class much more prepared for their studies,” she says. “They really have their blood circulating. The oxygen is going to their brains. They’re ready.”

The PTSA Nicole Chakos says some parents, however, never will consider letting their children walk or bike from home to school, even when it's not winter. Concerns about safely crossing busy streets at rush hour, the distance to travel, and the cold and snow during the winter present barriers. For those parents, she suggests creating a drop-off zone a few blocks from the school where the kids can gather and then walk as a larger group.

“Maybe they (parents) can get them across the busy road and let them walk as a group so they start to get the experience,” Chakos says. “I really believe as those parents get more and more comfortable, especially as the kids get a little bit older, with them leaving directly from home (and walking to school).”

Chakos says even walking those couple of blocks would count under Highland’s Boltage program.

The Boltage Zap unit, software, RFID tags, support, and other materials cost nearly $7,000 for the next 3 years. The school received a grant from the Montana Safe Routes To School (SRTS) to pay the cost.

A child at Highland with a Boltage RFID tag on her backpack

The state’s SRTS program is currently funded out of the 2005 federal transportation funding bill known as “Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act” or SAFETEA-LU.

Montana SRTS's Taylor Lonsdale says the state receives $1 million a year in dedicated funding under the current legislation. He says it's his understanding that the  current U.S. Senate proposal would move to a model where states would have the discretion to direct funding for a number of bicycle and pedestrian specific programs, including SRTS.

Lonsdale says it is hard for him to see a dedicated stream of funding possibly end. He says he sees the benefits of SRTS to Montana “from infrastructure improvement in small communities that otherwise couldn’t afford it to the education and encouragement programs like Boltage at Highland” that are getting kids excited about walking and biking to school.

And its more than just about schools. It's about livable communities, says Billings School District 2 trustee and community health advocate Kathy Aragon. “So we have an obligation to our community to make it more safe for kids to walk or bike,” she says. “We can return to the good old days where we didn’t have the congestion caused by parents driving their kids to school.”  Aragon adds encouraging kids to walk and bike to school is good for the environment because it reduces automobile emissions and it reduces wear and tear on streets because cars aren't driving back and forth in front of schools to drop off/pick up children. And: children and their parents can get in some exercise.

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