Walking and biking to school can be a challenge for some students because of road conditions, traffic signals and the lack of designated paths. But the county is working with the Big Lake School District to pinpoint those issues in an attempt to make it easier for kids to get to school. Each year, Sherburne County Health & Human Services does a community health project utilizing a group of nursing students from Bethel University. In October, 16 students did a walkability study near both Big Lake Elementary Schools to determine what issues needed to be addressed. The coverage area included streets within the zone where students are not bussed to school. The study was part of the county’s Safe Routes To School initiative and was funded by the Statewide Health Improvement Project (SHIP) grant. Bethel students used a checklist provided by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation Federal Highway Safety Administration to rate the streets and sidewalks near the schools. The study asked five different questions to evaluate a road or intersection: 1. Did you have room to walk? 2. Was it easy to cross streets? 3. Did drivers behave well? 4. Was it easy to follow safety rules? 5. Was your walk pleasant? Each road or intersection was rated on a scale from one to six using the following criteria: 1. awful; 2. many problems; 3. some problems; 4. good, 5. very good; 6. excellent. Each road or intersection was then given an overall rating, with the highest possible rank a 30. A few roads did well. Bermuda Ave., Pacific Ave. and Pacific Circle each received a 30. But some areas scored very low. The intersection of Eagle Lake Road and Hwy. 10 got a 21. The intersection of Eagle Lake Road and Glenwood Ave. got an 18. The survey showed there was very little room to walk, it wasn’t too safe to cross and drivers didn’t slow down or stop when thy should have. Co. Rd. 43 also received an 18. “For the most part, they found that most of the side streets were very walkable around the schools,” says Matt Jackson, community health coordinator with Sherburne County HHS “And there are some walking paths and sidewalks for the kids to get to and from school.” The main concerns are the busy thoroughfares around the schools. Eagle Lake Road and Co. Rd 43 have higher speed limits than the side streets. And walking can be dangerous for younger kids. “Eagle Lake Road does not have any sidewalks on either side of the road, which is a major concern especially now in winter with the snow building up,” says Jackson. “It makes it much more difficult for kids to walk on the shoulders.” The study also noted that the driving behavior on those roads was more erratic. “There are crosswalks on those roads where drivers should be stopping to let the kids cross and that wasn’t always happening,” says Jackson, “and their speeds were probably a little higher than they should be.” One suggestion that came out of the study was educating drivers why they need to stop at crosswalks when children are present. The Bethel students did not interview kids, teachers or drivers as part of the study. It was their goal to make observations and present their findings to the county HHS, along with school representatives in November. “They presented it to the school district so they could re-assess their involvement and areas of improvement, whether it be educating the kids or the parents,” says Jackson. “I think they were fairly aware about some of the issues. They have crossing guards when kids are walking.” Although the school can be proactive by clearing sidewalks of snow, providing crossing guards and educating kids and parents, it has no jurisdiction to make changes to county or city roads, like adding paths, sidewalks or changing speed limits. Jackson says that’s something the school district will be working with the city and county to change. “I think the school will be taking recommendations to city and the county,” he says. “And there is a Safe Routes To School grant available if the school decides to apply.” The county did a similar study last year in Zimmerman and Elk River school districts. Jackson says there are no immediate plans to do a walkability study at Becker Schools, but it would be the next logical step. The county did a walkability study in the cities of Big Lake and Becker in 2005 and found that both cities needed to improve their streets for pedestrian safety. Since then, the City of Big Lake adopted a Complete Streets policy that streets and roadways should be designed and operated to be safe and accessible for all transportation users whether they are pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders or vehicular motorists.