Project looks to create ‘safer routes’ for walkers

Realizing students needed safer walking and biking conditions when going to and from school, the Williamsport Area School District will perform updates to sidewalks and street crossings this summer.

As part of the “Safe Routes to School” program and funded by a federal grant authorized by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, the work will target the areas around the district’s in-town schools.

The district worked closely with contractors and the state Department of Transportation throughout the process.

David Wright, director of student services, explained that by giving a safe alternative to parents driving students or bus riding, it would alleviate traffic congestion and allow students an extra opportunity for exercise.

“We’ve got a lot of kids that are driven to school. We also have a lot that take the bus. We don’t have a lot of bikers,” he said.

For some parents, the sidewalk conditions don’t give students the options of walking.

“A lot of parents don’t even think about having their kids walk, they just bring them,” he said.

Wright explained that vehicle congestion also impacts the safety of walkers around the schools. He said that some students go between cars to cross the street, which lowers the visibility of both the driver and walker.

“When we get lots and lots of parents driving, we’ve got a lot of congestion. And when you’ve got a lot of congestion, that increases the danger to the students,” Wright said.

To find the problem areas, Wright said they performed a walkability audit. During the audit, district-approved individuals with identification cards followed students as they walked home from school. Parents were notified of the project before hand.

“They’ll take pictures of the circumstances that they’re walking,” Wright explained.

So starting this summer, sidewalks will be updated or in some instances paved, new signage will be installed warning drivers of upcoming higher pedestrian traffic and new “bold” crosswalks will be painted. The new crosswalks will have thicker lines that run vertically and horizontally. Wright said these new crosswalks are able to be seen by drivers farther away than just the two thin lines commonly seen.

“They’re bold and there’s so much contrast. These things really make it apparent that this is a crossing zone,” Wright said.

Sidewalks also will be updated to be ADA compliant.

And although Sheridan Elementary School has closed, it will remain in the project. Wright said the school was a part of the original project and it won’t be removed because the updates are not only for the students but anyone who walks in the city.

“The reality is the kids are not the only people that (use the sidewalks),” Wright said.

And as the city has helped the district in changing certain traffic patterns, the district said safety projects that it isn’t able to do but were identified during the audits can be passed on to the city.

Another piece to making students safer when walking or biking to school is educating, Wright said. He said both students and parents must learn safe ways to cross the street and get to school.

To help them get there, the district is looking at creating a walking school bus program. With the program, community volunteers would help a group of students walk to school.

“This is an interesting concept,” Wright said. “Walking school bus is a program that calls volunteers from the community, some of who will be parents and grandparents, that will volunteer to walk kids with safe routes.”

Wright said other districts have implemented the program. The district would do background checks on volunteers and be required to undergo training.

All of the updates, Wright said, are designed to help students get to school as safely as possible.

“If we can help make that walk safer, we’re in a better position,” he said.

Work on safe routes will be done by the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, Wright said.