Talk Newspaper: Here's an idea worth stealing.
Here's an idea worth stealing. A reader sent it to me a while back in the form of a New York Times clipping with a dateline of Lecco, Italy, near the Switzerland border.
"In 2003," the story says, "to confront the triple threats of childhood obesity, local traffic jams and a rise in global greenhouse gasses abetted by car emissions, an environmental group here proposed a retro-radical concept: children should walk to school. They set up a piedibus (literally 'foot-bus' in Italian) — a bus route with a driver but no vehicle. Each morning a mix of paid staff members and parental volunteers in fluorescent yellow vests lead lines of walking students along Lecco's twisting streets to the schools' gates, Pied Piper-style, stopping here and there as their flock expands."
Can you see this in Ashland? We're a little short on twisting streets, but the other pieces are all here. Our public schools are all located within reasonable walking distance of plenty of students. With the exception of East Main Street and the boulevard, our streets are mostly pedestrian friendly. So, most of the time, is our weather. I'm not sure what bus drivers would make of the project, but at least some of them should be ready to get out of their rigs for a while.
And what we'd really have is volunteers. My untested theory is that there's a big corps of grownups who'd happily walk the same route with kids every day, or close to it. Many would be grateful for the nudge to make their walking habit more regular, while serving our kids in a straightforward way; those whose own kids are long gone might crave some young energy. It's easy to imagine a buddy system developing, where an adult volunteer would keep a friendly eye on the same two or three kids each day — kids who in some cases don't get enough healthy support and attention.
And speaking of attention, think what this could do for the mental health of Ashland's dogs. Not that I'm authorized to represent them in any official way, but this idea would surely get a big woof of support from plenty of bored, under-exercised pets.
Starting a pilot program like this at a school or two would be a tonic for skepticism and fatigue with the perennial talk of building a "sustainable community." How do you actually do that? You could talk in the abstract for a decade or more; we almost have. How about actually doing it by actually starting to do it, in digestible bites that nourish our sense that we can make a real difference.
That's already happened in this town: the recycling depot, distribution of low-flow showerheads, incentives for energy conservation and solar installations and street designs that pay attention to cyclists.
This one could be especially powerful, because kids have fewer bad habits, or less deeply-engrained bad habits (like slavery to cars), to unlearn. My guess is that many of them, teenagers especially, would be less than thrilled at first. But chances are the piedibus would grow on them, particularly if volunteers started getting creative to make it fun. And you can almost hear the surge of nagging at Ashland dinner tables: "Geez, Mom, if I can walk 12 blocks to and from school every day, you suppose you could get it together to walk five blocks and bring groceries home in your backpack?" Sustainability is one of those courses where kids like to become teachers, and they're good at it.
Would there be some puzzles to work out? Sure. We'd need a notification system and contingency plan when the weather's too nasty. Insurance liability and bus drivers' contracts probably pose hurdles to clear. But if we decide we like the sound of this and can't get it going, at least as a pilot program, what happens when we finally have to make some tough lifestyle changes?
There may even be money to get rolling. Marin County, Calif., Columbus, Mo., and Boulder, Colo., all started walking bus routes with help from the federal Safe Routes to School program, which funds state efforts to encourage youngsters to walk or ride their bicycles. Columbus, Mo.? It may be too late to get on the piedibus' cutting edge. But we can be in the first wave of imitators.
The Times story ended with this from a transportation expert working on the program: "It's quite a lot of effort to keep it going. It's always easier to put children in the back of the car. Once you've got your two or three cars, it takes effort not to use them." So maybe we give kids a good alternative before they get their two or three cars.
My dog's ready.
Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.