Impact in Colorado

Voices for Healthy Kids

Colorado has long been viewed as an outdoor mecca for those engaged in recreational pursuits such as skiing, mountain biking and hiking. That’s why it’s surprising that only one in four Colorado youth get the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity.
One way that kids could be getting more physical in the Rocky Mountain State is through walking and biking to school, yet youth face safety challenges in doing so. Recognizing the impact of a lack of physical activity has on long-term health, a coalition of advocates went to work to establish a Colorado Safe Routes to School Program.
Safe Routes to School is a well-known federal program established in 2005 to provide funds to states that, in turn, are provided to local communities to improve the safety of walking and bicycling routes to and from school. Dollars from the program can also be spent on bicycle- and pedestrian-safety education geared toward students.
Unfortunately, dollars for the federal Safe Routes program have been dramatically reduced and the program itself rolled into a program that funds other non-school active transportation projects as well. In addition, demand among Colorado’s towns and cities for funding from the program has repeatedly far surpassed available dollars, sometimes by as much as two to one.
“Colorado has received funding from the federal program, and if it was going to go away, we wanted to make sure that the good it did continued in some way,” says Erin Hackett, government relations director with the American Heart Association of Colorado.
The coalition, powered by LiveWell Colorado, LiveWell Longmont, LiveWell NorthWest Colorado, Shape Colorado, the Colorado Health Foundation, Bicycle Colorado, Children’s Hospital of Colorado, Kaiser Permanente, and Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, led by the American Heart Association of Colorado and supported with technical assistance from Voices for Healthy Kids, was created to push for the creation and funding of a Colorado Safe Routes Program. The broad-based nature of the coalition allowed advocates to highlight the benefits and demand for the program in Colorado among cities and towns, schools, and health and active transportation interests. Chief among the benefits cited was the safety of students.
“Public safety was clearly one of our strongest arguments with the public, with communities, and with legislators,” says Susanna Mizer, senior government relations director with the American Heart Association of Colorado.
In 2014, the coalition found legislative support to introduce a bill to fund a Colorado-based Safe Routes to School Program with $3 million in one-time finding. Unfortunately, the funding was eventually cut to $700,000 and it could only be used for bicycle and pedestrian education initiatives in the schools.
The coalition returned in 2015 to the legislature to support the reintroduction of legislation to provide infrastructure funding for the program, which is funding for safer crosswalks, sidewalks, and trails. That effort stalled out when the bill was killed in the Colorado Senate’s State Affairs Committee.
Fortunately, for youth who either walk or bike to school, or want to, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and his transportation director had been watching the debate over whether or not to fund the Colorado Safe Routes to School Program, and the important safety and health benefits it would help bring to the state.
Hickenlooper, an avid supporter of biking, announced in September 2015 that as part of a spending program to help increase and support bicycling in the state, he would dedicate $10 million to the Colorado Safe Routes to School Program over four years. No less than 70 percent of that funding can go to infrastructure funding.
“The governor is committed to bikability and walkability, and he clearly saw the value of the program,” says Hackett.
The four years of funding will allow the program to get fully established while delivering benefits to Colorado communities to help them improve the safety of students who want to walk or bike to school. That, in turn, will help to get more Colorado youth reconnected to a lifetime of physical activity.
“We are going to spend the next four years continuing to generate support for the program thus making it viable for the long term,” says Mizer.