By Tara Bannow

The number of kids in Bend-La Pine Schools who bike to school in the mornings jumped more than 10 percent between 2012 and 2013 — the biggest increase yet in a single year.

That kind of statistic is a feather in Bendite Brian Potwin’s cap. Potwin has coordinated the district’s Safe Routes to School program for the past five years through his post as education coordinator for Commute Options, an organization that promotes alternatives for Central Oregonians to driving in cars.

“I’ve seen a shift in perceptions from parents around safety and the fun aspect of it,” he said. “I’ve seen an increased buy-in on the school district’s level and per school as well.”

Advocates of walking or biking to school say it’s a great way to ensure kids are getting at least some physical activity, especially at a time when physical education in schools continues to erode under the weight of budget cuts and shorter school years . The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, most of it moderate or vigorous aerobic activity. Depending on how far a child lives from school, walking or biking there may just satisfy the CDC’s guidelines.

But as attractive as the benefits may be, there are still significant barriers. Locally, the big ones are living too far from schools, inclement weather conditions and roads that don’t permit safe access to school by foot or bike, such as busy, arterial roads or those without sidewalks. Potwin’s group surveys parents on the subject and then uses the data to work with schools or the city to reduce the barriers, or with families to teach them about other options.

“If we’re talking about a specific situation with an entire school, we can educate them on that area,” he said.

A good example is the Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School (REALMS), which is near the Riverhouse at the intersection of Business 97 and NW Mt. Washington Drive. In that case, Potwin helps people navigate the busy intersection, which usually means redirecting them to the nearby Deschutes River Trail, which connects almost directly with the school.

“It’s not just the main travel lanes we all can go in by car,” he said. “Some of them are the more creative, fun, easy options.”

Safe Routes to Schools, a federal program with state and local chapters, has been active in Central Oregon for a decade. Since its inception, its leaders have worked with eight local elementary and middle schools to design safe routes to walk or bike to school. The process requires close coordination with the schools and involves designating a safe meeting point about a mile and a half from each school. Parents bring their kids to the safe point, and the kids then walk or bike to school in chaperoned groups of five to 20.

Volunteer chaperons — either parents or teachers from the schools — are essential to the model.

“It doesn’t work without an adult there,” Potwin said. “That’s part of what makes it safe and accessible.”

Potwin also goes into schools and teaches safe biking and walking habits, such as hand signals, traffic rules and wearing helmets.

For families considering allowing kids to bike or walk to school on their own, Potwin said the kids should be at least 10 years old to bike in the roadway. Younger kids don’t have fully developed depth perception, peripheral vision or comprehension of the speed of travel.

Kari Schlosshauer, regional policy manager for the Pacific Northwest for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, said 1 in 3 kids in the U.S. is overweight or obese, and the vast majority don’t get the recommended 60 minutes a day of physical activity.

“There’s obvious health concerns there,” she said. “Providing the safe routes and the encouragement and some of the educational pieces — especially with younger kids — putting those things in place within a school goes a huge way towards actually getting the kids to do it.”

In the end, encouraging and helping kids walk and bike to school ultimately benefits everyone in a community, Schlosshauer said.

“It’s really great to teach kids how to be good pedestrians and teach them how to ride bikes properly down the street because that benefits everyone if the kids know how to do those things,” she said, “and it makes everybody feel better about letting them go out and do that.”