Organizers are hoping that local residents leave their vehicles parked in the driveway this month and instead walk or bike to school or work bringing awareness to the benefits — like lower gasoline bills and emissions and increased physical and emotional health.
Helena’s bike/walk to school challenge, called “Switching Gears,” kicks offs Tuesday, Oct. 4, with an open house sponsored by the Non-Motorized Transportation Advisory Council (see sidebar).
Melinda Barnes of Big Sky Cycling and Fitness is a member of the council and says she hopes residents attend to offer their feedback about what Helena needs to become more pedestrian and biker friendly.
“It’s so important to get feedback from the community,” Barnes said. “It will help us have better focus.”
The monthlong biking and walking push continues on Wednesday with “International Walk to School Day,” and most area schools are hosting walks from nearby neighbors before school, some even serving breakfast to participants.
Schools are challenged all month long to form a team, log trips and become eligible to win prizes.
Students who arrive to school by bus will get the opportunity to participate, too, by walking to the bus stop instead of getting dropped off.
“We don’t want to prevent anybody from being able to participate,” Barnes said.
A calendar recently went home with school-aged children suggesting ideas for the remainder of the month, like writing a poem about walking or biking, playing a game of “I Spy” on the walk to school or planning a picnic on Mount Helena — all can be perfect ways for parents to easily get involved, too.
The idea of safer walking and biking paths goes beyond households and families and has been a goal of area municipalities for decades.
In recent months the push to create safe and appropriate walking and biking paths in and around Helena has been very visible.
The Helena School District revamped the loading and unloading area at Helena Middle School over the summer.
Work is under way at the Capitol Interchange Pedestrian-Access Bridge over I-15 on the east of the city limits.
The Montana Department of Transportation contracted with Frontier West and Helena Sand and Gravel for $2,307,500. Completion is anticipated for this fall.
This week, contractors will begin placing the pedestrian bridge and beams and begin finish work on walking path, according to Lori K. Ryan, MDOT public information officer
The Lewis and Clark County Health Department has roots in biking and walking safety around Helena too.
Gail Beckner, with the health department, said it began working on obesity prevention a little over two years ago after it received a grant through the Montana Nutrition and Physical Activity Program. The focus of the work is looking at our built environment, streets, neighborhoods and city as a whole, and how that development and growth impacts the opportunities for physical activity and good health, Beckner said.
“We have and continue to work with city and county staff, decisionmakers and community partners to identify goals and strategies to recognize and support active transportation, biking, walking and public transit in our community and among all of our community residents, young and old,” she said.
Becker said “Switching Gears” is the perfect opportunity to help prevent obesity.
The percentage of children walking and bicycling to school has dropped from 42 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2009, according to surveys by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Parents cited distance, weather, traffic dangers and crime as the most common barriers.
“Nationally, estimates show that a whopping one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese,” Beckner said, “and lack of physical activity is one of the reasons why.”
In Lewis and Clark County, 22 percent of middle school students and 27 percent of high school students consider themselves overweight, according to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. More than half said they were not physically active for at least one hour on five of the last seven days.
“Walking or biking to school gives kids a chance to build that much-needed physical activity into their daily routine,” Beckner said.
She said walk and bike to school events will focus on creating safer routes for walking and bicycling and emphasize the importance of such issues as increasing physical activity among children, bike and pedestrian safety, traffic congestion, concern for the environment and building connections between families, schools and the broader community.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org