Spring Grove aims to make walking/biking to school safer; New Safe Routes to School grant provides help

By: 
Jordan Gerard

Students who walk or bike to school in Spring Grove sometimes have a tough time getting around town, and that’s where a state-funded program steps in to help.

The city of Spring Grove recently received a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) grant that will allow initiatives by parents, schools, community leaders and local government to improve the health and well being of children by enabling and encouraging them to walk and bike to school, according to Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) officials. 

The first meeting was a rapid planning workshop on Friday, Nov. 1, which was a short and collaborative meeting that brought stakeholders together to share a diversity of design and planning ideas. 

Alta Planning and Design Senior Planner Jimmy Shoemaker said the norm used to be a lot of people walking and biking to school nationally, but it’s not quite the case today. Alta is the firm hired by MnDOT for SRTS.

“Most kids are not getting enough physical activity; roads near schools are congested which decreases safety and air quality,” he said. 

Anyone who’s ever tried to cross Highway 44 during a “rush hour” knows it can be tough and sometimes dangerous because drivers do not stop for pedestrians or bicyclists in the crosswalk. 

Minnesota as a state falls third nationally in safe routes to school rankings. In addition to federal funding for programs that increase safety, state dollars are also available.

Shoemaker explained the cycle of congestion on roadways starts with more parents driving students to school, which leads to increased traffic around school and in turn that brings rising concerns of traffic and safety and thus, fewer students walking and biking. 

This grant will last five years and though a dollar amount was not specified on the grant, it opens up other grant opportunities for the city to develop infrastructure (such as more curb bump outs) or non-infrastructure programming such as “walking school buses” where kids would be escorted to school from specific pick up points.

MnDOT staff said the outcomes should be increased walking and biking, improved safety, improved driver behavior, health and environmental connections, school performance and attention and youth empowerment and autonomy.

The department also uses the six E’s to accomplish goals within the five years and those are: education, encouragement, engineering, enforcement, evaluation and equity.

Looking at the data

Many of Spring Grove Public School’s 380 K-12 kids live within a half mile of the school building, which means a good deal of them walk or bike to school.

In fact, 30% of kids walk home from school while 24% walk to school in the morning, according to a student travel tally. However, 50% of them are receiving rides from family in the morning, and 42% are receiving rides home from school.

City Councilor Karen Folstad said she usually drove her kids to school and let them walk home on their own, which could echo what many parents do.

It was also understood at the meeting that morning schedules are hectic or parents work earlier or out of town, so they drop their kids off at school on the way to work.

When just looking at elementary data, about 43% received a ride to school in the morning but 30% walked home in the afternoon. Less than 20% of elementary-aged kids walked to school in the morning.

Shoemaker said they typically don’t see numbers that high for communities, but Spring Grove has the benefit of having their building in town, whereas other communities are combined or have buildings outside of town.

Principal Nancy Gulbranson said new families often tell her “Spring Grove has a ‘Mayberry’ feel to it. They feel safe here.”

Concerning busing, Spring Grove has four routes in the surrounding townships and two buses that pick up in town. Though some of the buses seem sparse, there has to be enough room for all kids on that route if they were to ride the bus all at one time.

Shoemaker said low bus numbers could also be due to parents wanting to spend extra time at home with their kids in the morning or they could be worried about their kids not making it to the bus on time.

City Councilor Scott Solberg said there are less kids living in the country because there are less farms every square mile.

Houston County Public Health Educator Audrey Staggemeyer agreed and said a lot of young people can’t afford property in the country.

Bus routes in town were a different story. When students Jacine Johanningmeier, Ava Olerud, Katie Lamm, Brianna Johnson and Elizabeth Garcia-Holty told officials about how they get to school, Johanningmeier said the bus that picks up on 2nd Ave. SE is packed full of kids.

That leads to the reasoning behind a survey taken by parents and caregivers, where almost 78% said speeding along a route is what keeps their kids from walking or biking to school. 

About 65% of those respondents said safety of intersections and crossings also kept kids from walking or biking to school. Only 30% were worried about violence or crime on the way to school.

For the most part, parents agreed the school encourages walking and biking to school, the parents think it’s healthy and more than 50% said it was fun or very fun for their students to walk or bike.

Open responses cited concerns about students waiting to cross State Highway 44 and low visibility for pedestrians and drivers. One was also concerned about having a crossing guard by The Little Gnome Childcare Center in the mornings and safety of sidewalks in the winter.

From the students

As previously mentioned, five students gave their input on how they get to school and how safe it is or is not. Most of the girls had lived at least seven years in Spring Grove or their whole lives. 

They cited walking to school as calming, getting fresh air and physical activity in the morning as what they enjoyed. 

What they did not like was dodging snow piles in the winter, watching out for snowplows and icy sidewalks. Meanwhile in the fall and spring months, road construction could often provide detours that increased traffic.

Garcia-Holty said she avoids the intersection of Main Street and Division Avenue because it’s dangerous for pedestrians and drivers. 

Additionally, the alley behind Main Street businesses was an area to avoid because of the deteriorating sidewalk and narrow west end of the alley.

They also noticed the crossing by Kwik Trip was a bad place to cross because drivers don’t stop for pedestrians. What’s more dangerous is people jaywalking across the highway because they can’t be bothered to walk down to the crosswalk. 

“There’s crosswalks but not respected crosswalks,” Johanningmeier said.

Other areas identified include 3rd Ave. NW and 1st St. NW (one-way) by the school. They said a lot of students use that road to travel to and from school. 

The area by City Hall and the elevator are also a problem due to congestion and oftentimes large and heavy equipment traveling through there. 

Lamm added she’s noticed that once people are past the school zone, they speed up on their way out of town on the west end.

They were also concerned about younger kids walking. Olerud said she’s helped several kids cross the highway by the school in the summer, when the school hosts its breakfast and lunch program.

The girls did say the bike lane during the summer months helps on Maple Drive.

Traffic control

The city is in the works to purchase a “Your Speed” sign, although the official decision has not been made yet. The goal is to slow traffic coming into town.

County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski encouraged the city to borrow one of those signs from another city and test it out. A lot of data can be collected from just a few days worth of having the sign. 

Shoemaker showed other examples of traffic control including signals, speed bumps, walk signals, shared use paths, bike lanes and high visibility crosswalks Spring Grove could potentially use.

The city already has high visibility crosswalks and a flashing sign by the school. However, the timing may need to be adjusted on that signal. Solberg said adding a flashing sign about a block or two away from the school on the west end would also give drivers more warning about the school zone. 

There are also temporary solutions that could lead to something more permanent. Construction bollards (picture white candlesticks on the road) are often used to stimulate curb bump outs. The reaction to that is studied for a while and then a permanent curb would be installed. 

Into the future

The projects surrounding pedestrian and bicycle safety most likely won’t happen overnight, but it won’t take 20 years either, Shoemaker said. 

Several other area cities like Caledonia, La Crescent and Chatfield have received the SRTS grant in the past and have seen improvements around their schools.

Over the course of five years, city and school officials will continue working with MnDOT and Alta to find solutions. The local team leaders are City Clerk/Treasurer Erin Konkel and City Councilor Scott Solberg.

Stay tuned for more information about Safe Routes to School. Visit https://www.mnsaferoutesplanning.org/map/#/ for an interactive map of Spring Grove and give your input.