Walking [and Biking with Students] in Memphis: Commute Options Schools Highlights from Fall 2023


This blog is authored by Nikki Dildine, Commute Options Schools Manager for Innovate Memphis

As we start to wind down and look toward the new year, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the work Commute Options has done in partnership with schools this semester. Commute Options is an Innovate Memphis program funded by the state Department of Transportation (TDOT) and the Hyde Family Foundation. This fall, our focus has been on working with educators, families and students to encourage healthier transportation options to and from school. We know that if we can decrease traffic in the car rider line and increase the number of students walking and biking to school, we will in turn improve the air quality and overall health of students as well as attendance since transportation is a common driver of absenteeism.

We’ve been grateful for the opportunity to partner with MSCS’s Coordinated School Health team to help introduce the concept of a Walking School Bus to schools across the district. A traditional Walking School Bus is a group of students walking together along an agreed route to and from school, accompanied by adults with designated stops along the way. Student outreach is a large piece of the work we do, and through Walking School Buses, we were able to connect with Sea Isle Elementary School. In an effort to include all students, we opted to hold the first Walking School Bus events during the day after students arrived at school, rather than as a means of getting to and from school. This ensured everyone got to participate and gave students and teachers time to get up, get moving, and get some fresh air.  A good time was had by all, and we hope these events inspired some students to consider walking as their new mode of transportation to school. We’d love to see communities come together and help provide our students with safe and healthy ways to get to school daily.

In October, we presented at Sea Isle’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) Career Fair where Jackson McNeil (Innovate Memphis’ Transportation & Mobility Director) and I talked with 4th and 5th grade students about our work in Memphis through Commute Options. They were an attentive and engaged audience, and we took the opportunity to tie the work we’re doing to important issues like improving air quality and physical activity. We stressed that improving the environment and student health is not just about students themselves deciding to walk or bike. This also depends on having well-designed communities that support walking and cycling as a means of transportation. The timing was perfect, as the City of Memphis recently completed a pedestrian safety project in front of the school as part of the Accelerate Memphis capital improvement program. We were able to incorporate this real-life example into our discussion. (Accelerate Memphis is part of the Memphis 3.0 comprehensive plan and funded through a historic $200 million public investment for catalytic community projects in neighborhoods that have experienced historic disinvestment. An interactive map including project status can be found here.) In 2024, we will continue to advocate for more safety improvements around schools, and we will continue to educate students on traffic safety.

Another highlight of our fall 2023 programming has been the work we’ve done in collaboration with Treadwell Elementary and Middle Schools. The Treadwell campus is one of MSCS’s Community Schools, a program that allows schools to provide embedded wraparound services that support not only students’ needs, but also the needs of their families and neighborhood. With Treadwell’s Community Schools Coordinator, we’ve been able to connect with parents to identify safety concerns surrounding walking and biking to school. We have also partnered with The Heights CDC, which has designed and installed many traffic calming fixtures on Highland near Treadwell to improve pedestrian safety by slowing down car traffic. We hope to build upon the traffic calming measures The Heights implemented last spring so that students and families feel safe and enjoy walking to school. Treadwell is a shining example of what can be accomplished when a community comes together. With the support of the school, parents, and great community partners like The Heights CDC, we know Memphis can create safe routes to school for students in more neighborhoods.

Finally, one of our most exciting partnerships this fall was with Maxine Smith STEAM Academy. We have really enjoyed working with PE teacher, Kyle Kuusisto. “Coach K” has a passion for cycling, a fleet of bikes, and knows the importance of getting students outside and moving. We’ve helped him assemble new bikes, taught students the basics of maintenance and safety, and most importantly, got students outside to ride. The students absolutely love this unconventional curriculum, and we would love to see this program grow and expand to other schools. We’re looking forward to riding the Shelby Farms Greenline with the students in 2024 and exposing them to safe routes to bike to school. We also have some exciting plans to incorporate traffic gardens into a 6th grade STEM project next semester. Traffic gardens are safe, fun places where kids can learn to navigate simulated streets and traffic fixtures. Students will be incorporating STEM concepts such as engineering into the design and considering the impact that street design has on our air quality when more people commute via walking and cycling.

Overall, we have had a very productive and fun fall semester. We will continue to work with schools, communities, and the City to advocate for infrastructure improvements to address street safety issues, but our direct work with students has been the most fun aspect of our work. We have a lot in the works for spring 2024, so stay tuned!

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