ickelson Middle School cyclists (from left) David Burkhalter, Thomas Mittan and Evan Thompson will be among the beneficiaries of the recently announced "Safe Routes to School" program.
Robb Rasmussen, owner of Sioux River Bicycles and Fitness, remembers riding his bike to baseball practice every day a six-mile trip one way.
"The habits of this generation have changed," he said.
"In the days of cheap oil, everyone was just buying bigger vehicles and hauling children everywhere. It's had a tremendous impact on our society, where childhood obesity is running rampant. By changing the habits of a few, we could impact the entire nation in a very positive manner."
He has a point. Forty years ago, childhood obesity in the U.S. was at 10 percent, and a reported 50 percent of students were walking or biking to school every day. Today, the obesity rate has soared to more than 50 percent, and fewer than 3 percent of students today report that they walk or cycle to school on a daily basis.
The U.S. could save 462 million gallons of gas a year by increasing cycling from 1 to 1.5 percent of all trips.
Rasmussen thinks it's time for a change in the transportation habits of children today, and that's why he and a group of interested community residents are initiating the Safe Routes to School program (SRTS) in Brookings. What is SRTS?
SRTS is an international movement designed to create safe, convenient and fun opportunities for children to walk and bicycle to school.
The program works on the community level and focuses on evaluation , education, encouragement, engineering and enforcement.
The program was initiated in 2000 and is a movement of nonprofit organizations, government agencies, schools and professionals who work together in its advancement in the U.S. How SRTS came to Brookings
Federal transportation law authorizes $5 million for each state to spend on SRTS over a five-year period. South Dakota was the 50th state to get on board with the program, due largely in part to Rasmussen himself.
"I started lobbying to have the transportation bill passed in Congress after I heard about (SRTS) through the bike industry ," he said.
The bill that Rasmussen mentioned passed in 2005 and allocated $612 million to make SRTS a national program. Previously, it had been a community- and state-based movement. Wyoming seminar
Rasmussen attended a threeday training seminar about SRTS in Wyoming. There he met the late Al Bender, a retired state climatologist who helped bring SRTS to South Dakota.
A full-time SRTS coordinator, Angela Olson, was selected in Pierre at the South Dakota Department of Transportation. Rasmussen was named to the transportation board in Brookings in January, and in March of 2008, the application process for SRTS opened. He was tasked as a board member to make sure Brookings was among South Dakota's applicants .
The SRTS subcommittee worked on the application until the very last minute, and one member actually drove the application to Pierre on the June 6 deadline date.
The SRTS subcommittee found out at the end of August that Brookings had been selected as one of the South Dakota cities that would receive SRTS funding . What it means for Brookings
Since $93,000 of funding was approved for the project, SRTS will be moving forward as a community-based effort in Brookings.
"What that means is that we are really going to need the community to buy into this idea," Rasmussen said.
The plan for the first year of the project, which is phased over a five-year period, includes creating bicycle safety lanes near the new Camelot School in Brookings and connecting to Mickelson Middle School as well as the Boys & Girls Club.
Other activities include teaching children in grades eight and below (which is all SRTS funding is eligible for) about walking and bicycling safety. More walking
Plans for walking and bicycling buses are in effect for the first year of the SRTS plan as well as events such as a "walk to school day" in October that promote children leading more active lifestyles.
Volunteers are still needed to lead the walking/biking buses as well as with other parts of the project over time.
As a member of the transportation board and as a result of SRTS awareness, Rasmussen has also been tasked to create a bicycle master plan for the city of Brookings, following in the footsteps of Sioux Falls' bike plan. With this project he will be working in coalition with the Student Association at South Dakota State University to create safer bike routes on campus.
Brookings Mayor Scott Munsterman is currently applying for "bicycle friendly community status" for Brookings, which will enable the SRTS subcommittee to apply for other grants and aid for the project.
Rasmussen said that the next step is to get ready for the next round of funding for SRTS. Applications open in November. More signs, safety
At this time next year, he hopes that the result will be signs and maps pointing children or parents toward safer biking or walking routes, classes established that will teach bike safety, and walking/biking buses will be in full operation.
"It is important for everyone to know that this funding can only be used for walking and biking paths for the SRTS program ," Rasmussen said. "And if we don't use it somebody else will."
Contact Amanda Palluck at apalluck @brookingsregister.com.