It's hard to encourage your kids to walk to school if there's no sidewalk.

Likewise, it's hard to encourage them to ride their bikes if the road is narrow or poorly maintained, traffic moves too fast or there's no bike lane.

These are some of the main obstacles that the federal Safe Routes to School program is supposed to fix, but South Carolina isn't exactly making the grade. Only 33 percent of the federal funds given to South Carolina for these kinds of safety improvements have been allocated. That makes us the third-lowest (or third-slowest) in the country at funding these improvements.

And the tri-county is lagging behind Bluffton, Columbia and Spartanburg in successfully completing these federally funded improvements.

More options

You know there's a problem when the kids who originally would have benefited from the program at certain elementary and middle schools have moved on to other schools.

Certainly it's difficult to get right-of-way permission and work with existing infrastructure, but maybe it's also a question of shifting priorities, as some local transportation leaders mentioned. If everyone's focused on building or blocking Interstate 526, nobody's listening to the parents who want a neighborhood sidewalk.

And building sidewalks is not the only solution. Maintenance and repair of existing sidewalks and walking routes, or adding speed bumps and other traffic-calming measures are also projects that are eligible for Safe Routes to School funding. In addition, between 10 percent and 30 percent of Safe Routes funding is supposed to go toward things other than infrastructure, according to federal guidelines.

To that end, the National Center for Safe Routes to School is promoting a program called the walking school bus. This program combines parental supervision with modeling healthy behaviors to create a walking school-bus route, where kids are accompanied on foot by a group of parent-led kids on their route from home to school, then back at the end of the school day.

There's an online training program that explains how it works and how to get started.

Healthy futures

Parents answering a poll on Monday overwhelmingly said it wasn't safe for their children to walk to school, by a 2-1 ratio.

It's one of the basic things that we could do to improve children's health and address the obesity epidemic, actually.

In 1977, about 20 percent of school-age kids walked to school. In 2001, that number had dropped to 12.5 percent, according to figures from the Institute of Medicine.

Kids who don't have the option or opportunity to walk to school are likely to join the 80 percent of Americans who don't get enough physical activity.

For those who aren't fans of the walking school bus concept or of the safe routes concept, there's other news: The state is buying more buses, something it surely needs to do.

But that doesn't solve the walkability problem, it just steers around it.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or