Q&A: Winter Commutes and Safe Routes to School

For this newsletter, we interviewed Taylor Lonsdale. Taylor has served as Montana’s State SRTS Coordinator for two years now –biking to work year round – so he knows a thing or two about safe winter commuting for children and adults.

Q: Does winter weather have an impact on the number of children walking and biking to school in Montana?

A: It’s huge – It depends on how harsh the winter is, but I’d say that a large number of programs stop when winter weather starts to move in. Some parents still [walk or ride bicycles to school] with their kids, but the weather definitely has a major impact.

There’s a principal in Bozeman who has been clear that he’s going to run the walking school bus program in the winter, regardless of what the weather is doing. He’s a great role model and has some gung-ho volunteers! It’s a big challenge to find volunteers willing to lead walking school buses when it’s 15-20 degrees below zero. But it’s important to run the programs through the winter weather, because many students have to get to school on foot. They need someone looking out for their safety when it’s cold, icy and snowy.
 

Q: What are the biggest issues for SRTS in the winter?

A: Slippery conditions and blocked sidewalks and pathways are a big issue. In most Montana communities, property owners are responsible for clearing sidewalks adjacent to their property, so there’s variability in conditions. It can be extremely challenging.

Another challenge is parents’ perception of whether it’s acceptable weather for their child to be outside – whether they’re safe. I live in Bozeman, which is a ski-town. I ask if they’d consider taking their child skiing on a day like that. Most often, parents will say it’s too cold to walk or bike to school, but would gladly take them skiing. To help change perceptions, you can relate walking and biking to school to any outdoor recreation in winter.

Obviously parents should make informed choices about what’s safe for their children, but it’s nice to coax them a little and give them perspective. So I’ve given examples of programs in Alaska and New Hampshire in my newsletter to say ‘these folks are walking year round, and we can do it here too.’
 

Q: How can schools continue SRTS programs in winter months?  

A: To steal a phrase from Nike, ‘Just Do It.’ It’s a question of trying it – just start with a monthly walk to school event so that people have the opportunity once a month to say, you know, I can get out and do this. And then they’ll realize it’s not that bad.

Portland has a Worst Day of the Year ride in February, when it’s usually cold and rainy. It would be great to come up with something like that – Walk to School on the Worst Day. Find the average coldest day in your community, and hold a big event. Celebrate that yes, it’s winter, but we can still do this!
 

Q: Do you have any simple tips for encouraging safe winter commutes?

A: Number one has to be dress appropriately. [In Montana], that’s warm jackets, gloves, snow pants and boots. You also need to make sure that those articles of clothing remain with and on children during the commute. Supervision of a walking school bus is a good opportunity to monitor [for appropriate clothing].

It’s also important to help students get access to warm winter clothing – it’s often students from low-income families who need to walk or bike to school, even in winter, and often they have less availability to these necessary items. Teachers like winter SRTS programs because students are prepared to be outside at recess. A lot of times, students are driven to school from warm house to warm car to warm school, and don’t think to bring snow pants, a hat and a warm jacket. Then they can’t be outside during recess, which presents a challenge to the school and minimizes the student’s time to be active during the school day.

Picking routes is important, including thinking about particular routes in and around the schools where maintenance may be better. Being visible is also important. It’s often dark when students are on the way to school, so we encourage use of bright clothing.
 

Q: What’s the most creative SRTS idea you’ve heard about this winter?

A: A school here is developing a Cross Country Ski to School Day.  They have a number of ski trails in town with an active Nordic skiing program for their youth, so they want to tie that into SRTS. It would be a neat program to develop.  It’s one more way to think about active transportation in the winter – and you don’t have to worry about sidewalks being clear!
 

 

Thanks so much for your time, Taylor, and for your great insight into keeping SRTS programs going all winter long.

Want to learn more about SRTS and winter weather? Check out our upcoming webinar: Making the Cold Cool: Keeping Your SRTS Program Going During the Winter on Tuesday, Feb. 28 from 1–2 p.m.