Considering Safety First

(This piece was originally published as a Guest Column in the April 23, 2017 Print Edition of the Tampa Tribune.) 

New Bell Schedule Increases Pressure on Sub-Standard Student Pathways to School

By Emily L. Hay Hinsdale & Tim Scheu

You’re 11 years old. You’re standing on the sidewalk by a four-lane highway, speed limit 40mph. The challenge: Reach the other side of the highway through rush hour traffic and make it to school by 9:30a.m. Ready?

No, this isn’t a video game; this is the proposed plan to get Hillsborough County students to school starting this fall.

According to a recent report by Smart Growth America, the Tampa Bay area is already one of the top 10 most dangerous metro areas for pedestrians. With diminished school busing already assumed, the proposed bell schedule changes only exacerbate that challenge and increase pressure on the region’s road safety infrastructure to protect kids accessing public education.

Should the school district’s proposed bell schedule changes meet with the school board’s approval on April 25th, here is what morning school transportation will look like for district students:

  1. High School, 7:15a.m. Transportation options include an increasingly limited supply of school buses, rides with parents or via their own cars, public transportation, and walking/biking. For a portion of the year, students will be on the way to school in the dark, crossing highways and roads with no sidewalks, faded or non-existent crosswalks, few traffic lights, and no crossing guards.

  2. Middle School, 9:30a.m. Transportation options are the same for middle schoolers as for high schoolers, minus student drivers. With a mid-morning start time, well after most parents’ jobs start, many 11-14-year-old students will be reaching school by themselves, traveling as far as (just under) 2 miles across highways and through rush-hour traffic.

  3. Elementary School, 8:30a.m. Most elementary schools will have limited to non-existent school busing options next year, meaning that students will arrive at school by walking/biking or being driven by parents. As with middle school students, children whose parents’ jobs begin before 8:30a.m. will be approaching schools by themselves.

There is an opportunity here for the school board, school district, Hillsborough County and City of Tampa to work in concert for a goal that should be desired by all: responsibly and safely moving students from their homes to their schools. As the law of the land requires children to attend school, it becomes a job for all of us to make it safe for them to do so.

Many safety measures are simple, but will require appropriate budgeting buy-in from our elected representatives: include pedestrian safety education in school programs, bring crosswalks on school walking routes up to current code, install more effective signage around school zones that is clear for pedestrians and drivers, mandate sidewalk construction near schools, and provide more responsive crossing lights near schools.

District officials are under pressure to operate responsibility, ensuring that revenues cover the cost of school bussing. They’ve demonstrated creativity in offering a new, albeit controversial, bell schedule. It would seem similarly prudent to ensure that safe pathways for our kids are also in place. It’s not clear how they model the cost of student fatalities, but accidents like that can’t help the bottom line.

We urge our city, county, and school representatives to take a proactive approach to student transportation. Prioritize discussions about student safety before the vote on April 25. Consider the suite of needed infrastructure improvements. Imagine yourself or your kids in the shoes of that 11-year-old, approaching that four-lane highway. What’s it going to take to make you feel safe?  

Emily L. Hay Hinsdale and Tim Scheu are two of the Co-Founders of Sidewalk Stompers, a Tampa-based effort powering community building and safer pedestrian pathways via school-based walking programs and public advocacy. For more information see www.sidewalkstompers.org.