Friday, November 28, 2014

YAHL: Biking to a healthier Ottawa

By TOM YAHL, City of Ottawa | 5/3/2013

Anyone who knows me well knows that my life, outside of my career with the City of Ottawa, revolves around two things: kids and bicycles.

When I’m not working, I often can be found with my daughter, “little brother” or other kids, or off on an adventure on my bike. One of the projects I’ve worked on for the city is our Safe Routes to School program.

Anyone who knows me well knows that my life, outside of my career with the City of Ottawa, revolves around two things: kids and bicycles.

When I’m not working, I often can be found with my daughter, “little brother” or other kids, or off on an adventure on my bike. One of the projects I’ve worked on for the city is our Safe Routes to School program.

The plan for our program was approved in 2010 by the Kansas Department of Transportation, in the form of a funding award. Since then, we have undertaken a number of activities to teach kids about safe walking and bicycling, encouraging kids to walk or bike to school and helping keep the streets safe for them to get to school. Best of all, this past fall, contractors hired by KDOT completed the four sidewalk projects we proposed. These projects include new sidewalks on Ash Street, Osage Drive, Cherry Street and 13th Street.

While we have received numerous compliments on these projects, a survey of students conducted just this week shows the vast majority of students still are being driven back and forth to school by their parents or other family members. A review of the results from Ottawa Middle School shows that for all trips to and from OMS Tuesday and Thursday, only 25 percent were made by walking or biking. Those who rode their bikes represented only 3 percent of the students who weren’t driven to school. And this was on two of the best weather days we’ve seen this year.

While these numbers represent only middle school students, I suspect the results from the elementary schools would show a pattern similar to those across the nation. Between 1969 and 2009, the number of kindergarten through eighth-grade students who walked or biked to school slipped from 48 percent to only 13 percent.

While there are a number of reasons behind this decline, the result is that many kids are not getting the exercise they need. Less active kids tend to be overweight, and research shows overweight children are at increased risk of obesity and such chronic diseases as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.

Walking or bicycling to school is an opportunity for children to get the physical activity they need and to develop more healthful habits. Physical activity is associated with improved academic performance in children and adolescents. There also are community benefits. In addition to reducing traffic congestion, it helps develop a sense of neighborhood and provides time to connect with parents, friends and neighbors. Most importantly, it is fun. Walking or biking to school gives children time for physical activity and brings a sense of joy, responsibility and independence to young people.

On Wednesday, schools and communities across the country will celebrate the second annual National Bike to School Day as part of National Bike Month. Almost 1,000 schools in 49 states registered events for the inaugural Bike to School day in 2012. While The City of Ottawa and the Ottawa school district don’t have any formal events planned, the day will be a good opportunity to encourage your students to ride their bikes to school.

Our community offers many features, such as the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail, bike lanes, and connected neighborhoods, which allow safe bicycling between homes, schools and businesses. We also can encourage other drivers to be aware of the presence of cyclists and ask them to slow down and give adequate space when passing cyclists.

As we here at City Hall work to improve our infrastructure to allow more transportation options, it’s up to the city’s residents, parents and educators to inform young people that these options exist. If we all begin to take a few small steps away from regular vehicle use, our children and our community will become both healthier and happier.

Tom Yahl is a City of Ottawa planner and codes officer.

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