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U.S. launches school commute exercise plan

/ Source: The Associated Press

When Amy Lovell dropped off her son at school, she had to make sure the fifth-grader didn't dash off without his French horn. It was strapped to the back of her bicycle with a pair of bungee cords and rope.

Each morning, Lovell and her 10-year-old son Allen don helmets and ride their bicycles for the 10-minute commute to Glenwood Academy in the Atlanta suburbs, joining dozens of other parents and pupils who wheel into the public elementary school the same way.

On a nearby sidewalk, parents lead a group of children to school on a "walking bus" — a convoy of kids without the bus. It's part of the Safe Routes to School program, a $612 million effort to increase physical activity among students throughout the nation by getting them to bike or walk to school.

The program's first conference will be held in Michigan next month.

"When we started the pilot project two years ago, there were three bikes, now there are 60 to 70" attached to the school's bike rack, said Fred Boykin Jr., a local bicycle shop owner who is the chairman of metro Atlanta's Safe Routes coalition.

Today, only about 15 percent of schoolchildren travel to school under their own power. The program seeks to change that by offering federal Department of Transportation funds to help build sidewalks, post traffic signs and find ways to make it easier for students to bike or walk to school, said Robert Ping, of Portland, Ore., who assists states with the Safe Routes program.

"Safe Routes is potentially the tipping point to increasing opportunities for kids to be physically active," Ping said. "The trip to school is happening anyway."

Overcoming obstacles

Planners have to overcome the reasons why many children don't bike or walk to school. It's easier for busy parents to make a quick drive to drop off their kids. Or parents worry about their child's safety because of traffic or strangers. Plus, buses pick up children at street corners and it's common for students to live miles from school.

The program seeks to overcome those obstacles by getting parents involved. Parents go with students on short walks or bike rides to school and work with police departments and city planners to make the commute easier for kids.

Another problem is the program doesn't provide much money to states, especially smaller states.

About 20 states have Safe Routes programs rolling and some of the most successful programs are in largely populated areas such as California and Florida. Advocates say the program may be easier to carry out in urban areas with plenty of sidewalks as opposed to rural locations where children live far from school.

Georgia was given $16 million to spend through 2009 and the state Department of Transportation has been trying to get communities beyond metro Atlanta involved.

"There has been a lot of interest in infrastructure but we are trying to get communities to understand this is not just a free sidewalk program. This is about teaching kids about activity and giving them a safe area where they can walk from home to school," said spokeswoman Carrie Hamblin.

Lovell said riding to school with her son seemed scary the first time because of the traffic on the roads, but her son has learned to love biking to school. She's only had to drive him one day because of the weather.

"It's a way to have him start his day on a positive note," she said.