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Culture change can start with more walking

Allentown Morning Call
Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013

By Thomas Hylton

Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone, which is generating millions of dollars in tax-subsidized development, has dominated the headlines in recent years.  Thanks to Allentown’s success, a recently enacted state law will allow two additional cities to create tax-subsidized zones next year, with more to come later.

Bringing new buildings, jobs and residents to the downtown is great, but there are far less expensive ways cities can enhance their quality of life without continual subsidies.

The physical properties of the Lehigh Valley’s cities and boroughs – human scale, proximity of buildings and diversity of activities – are the overwhelming advantage they enjoy over the car-dependent suburbs.  Here’s one example.  Suburban students spend a good chunk of their school careers sitting on a bus.  Even a half-hour ride, one-way, amounts to 180 hours a year.  Add that up over 13 years, grades K-12, and our young people are spending more than a year’s worth of 40-hour work weeks just riding a bus.

Most Allentown students, on the other hand, can walk to school.  This saves taxpayers a ton of money.  Statewide, school busing costs more than $1.3 billion a year, not including the environmental costs of air pollution, the wear and tear on our highways, and the traffic congestion generated every morning and afternoon.     

Of Allentown’s 14 elementary schools, only one – Lehigh Parkway – has a majority of students being bused.  Walkers make up half or more of the student enrollment at every other elementary school except Muhlenberg, where a lot of parents drive their kids to school.  Likewise, walkers at the city’s four middle schools range from 50 percent at Trexler to 90 percent at Raub.

Walking is the most efficient transportation system there is.  The maximum number of cars that can move along one lane – whether it’s an alley or part of Interstate 78 – is 2,000 per hour.  That same lane could accommodate 14,000 bicyclists or 19,000 pedestrians per hour.  

Unlike auto traffic, walking is healthy for people and communities.  Walking can prevent obesity and reduce blood pressure.  It lowers the risk of heart disease and chronic ailments like diabetes and osteoporosis.  It relieves stress.  And recent studies show that students who exercise daily perform better on standardized tests.

Here’s a quiet way Allentown is building on its “walkability” advantage: Last year, the school district and the city completed “walkability audits” for all its elementary and middle schools using a PennDOT-funded engineering firm.  The audits identified two or three main walking routes to each school and recommended improvements to make those routes safer.  

The city subsequently obtained a state grant it will use to increase the visibility of crosswalks along school routes using wide stripes of highly reflective thermoplastic coatings. Meanwhile, the district has installed bike racks at all its middle schools, and the city is painting 200 “sharrow” symbols on selected streets reminding motorists to share the road with bicyclists.

In Pottstown, where I serve on the school board, we’re making an all-out push to encourage kids to walk or ride bicycles to school.  Like Allentown, we are a walkable school district, and, like Allentown, the school district and local municipality – Pottstown Borough -- share the same boundaries.  Together with our local police, our superintendent of schools and borough manager are promoting a plan to repair sidewalks along walking routes, improve crosswalks, and provide dedicated bike routes to all our schools.

School uniforms, which the Allentown School District is implementing this year, will enable Allentown students to improve the district’s image as they walk to school.  In Pottstown, we introduced student uniforms five years ago at our elementary schools and middle school, and added the high school the following year.

The overwhelming consensus is the uniforms have improved attitudes and behavior among, and toward, our students.  Perhaps best of all, the sight of teens walking to school in collared shirts and neat khakis instead of tank tops and frayed jeans has sent a message to our community that we’re serious about education.  

New multi-million-dollar office buildings, stores, restaurants, and condos downtown are good. Culture change, starting with something as simple as uniformed kids walking to school, is even better.  


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