Pedaling Towards Safer Routes to School

Juleesia Santiago-Karim; Education & Engagement Manager

On May 3rd, 2023, Napier Elementary students eagerly pedaled their way to school, test-riding new infrastructure enhancements and traffic calming measures along Cannon St. from Charles E. Davis Blvd. to Napier Elementary. This initiative, fueled by collaboration between Napier Elementary, Walk Bike Nashville (WBN), Nashville Department of Transportation (NDOT), and The Civic Design Center (Civic Design), marked the first-ever Bike to School Day bike train along the established walking school bus route in Napier.

Identified as a focal point of concern highlighted by the Vision Zero Action Plan – the intersection of Lafayette St. and Charles E. Davis Blvd. stands as a hotspot for pedestrian injuries, a mere 0.6 miles from Napier Elementary. In our commitment to champion safe routes for students, Walk to School Day and Bike to School Day have become a beacon, shedding light on the challenges hindering safe commutes and emphasizing the benefits of physical and social activities through active transportation.

Reminiscent of our own school days, we ponder the modes of transportation that shaped our childhood journeys. Were our paths self-determined, or were they dictated by external factors? What elements influenced our choices, and what might have propelled us toward more active alternatives? These questions echo the essence of our collective journey toward fostering safer and healthier routes for today's students.

In partnership with WBN's Safe Routes to Schools team, Napier Elementary tackled attendance challenges exacerbated by chronically late school buses. In the Fall of 2022, a walking school bus was implemented. Simultaneously, Cand'aid opened avenues for recreation and exploration by orchestrating a community bike build at The Legacy Mural on Jefferson Street and donating a bike and helmet to every first-grader at Napier Elementary.

There was not an uptick in students biking to school after receiving the fleet of bikes, and we sought to understand why. Through conversations with school leadership and community members, we pinpointed several barriers, such as maintenance issues, limited access to bikes, inadequate bike parking, and the absence of helmets. Notably, the most frequently voiced concern was the fear of theft.

With the barriers students experience at the top of their minds, Napier Elementary, WBN, NDOT, and Civic Design began planning for Bike to School Day. Recognizing the importance of safety, the planning committee brainstormed temporary measures that could be installed during the month of May to inform permanent solutions in the future. Originally, we had envisioned a substantial installation of bike lanes. However, in response to the community's expressed preference for stop signs and traffic calming, we shifted our emphasis away from bike lanes.

Ahead of Bike to School Day, a two-day bike clinic organized by Walk Bike Nashville ensured that every bike, regardless of its previous condition, received necessary maintenance. Volunteer bike mechanics, passionate about empowering the community, provided free bike tune-ups and repairs in the parking lot of the library. They also distributed new helmets, bike locks, and lights. For those without a bike, or who hadn't benefited from Cand'aid's generosity, WBN's bike clinic allowed students to borrow a bike the morning of the event and receive a fitting for a helmet that they could keep.

During the Bike to School Day install day, temporary materials were used to add crosswalks and traffic circles while NDOT installed bike racks at the front of the school – all with the aim of creating a secure environment for students and community members. The temporary nature of the improvements allowed for a quick and inexpensive turnaround time, and a way for community members to test out safety improvements.

On the much-anticipated day, around 30 Napier Elementary students pedaled their way to school, leaving a trail of excitement and change in their wake. Starting from the Pruitt Library Branch on Charles E. Davis Blvd., parents cheered on their children as they rode down Cannon St., experiencing the new temporary traffic calming installation.

After the event, residents and the neighborhood health clinic shared their perspectives on the design and expressed a willingness to support future community-driven changes. While bike lanes are sometimes linked to gentrification, one resident provided a unique insight, stating, "Knowledge of bike lanes is not common in Napier–they ride through yards; everywhere is a bike lane, so it’s a cultural thing." In response to this feedback, we decided to prioritize the accessibility of the clinic for its most vulnerable patients and address potential road hazards by removing the delineators.

Following Bike to School Day, the traffic calming measures were removed as our ongoing neighborhood engagement and NDOT’s engineering analysis persisted. Throughout the summer, we actively sought feedback from the community at town halls, Napier Day, and during monthly Safety Resource meetings. The prevailing sentiment was that traffic circles were not the desired solution. There was confusion on how to use them properly and they were hard to see at night. 

We started exploring the idea of curb extensions which involves moving the curb out into the road to narrow the car lanes and encourage slower driving speeds. We worked with local artist Charles Key to install painted versions of the curb extensions, otherwise known as bulbouts. We scheduled the installation to coincide with Fall break so that families would be more available to participate in the painting. We had so much fun painting with the community members on the week of October 10th! With NDOTs help there were also planter boxes used as physical barriers at Lewis and Cannon, as well as plastic delineators at Fairfield and Cannon. This allowed residents to see different materials that can be used in the final installation.


The second installation was more widely accepted and in anticipation of our upcoming Bike to School Day in May 2024, we are working with NDOT to install concrete curb extensions and speed cushions along Cannon, as well as a raised crosswalk across Fairfield. This initiative allowed us to leverage one of our well-known Safe Routes to School events to work towards permanent solutions with the community's vision.

Let's journey back in time and reflect on our own school commuting experiences. Imagine having well-maintained sidewalks, separated from vehicular traffic, or synchronized traffic signals and pedestrian crossing lights providing safe intervals for crossing. These elements can be the catalyst for a transformative shift toward more active and secure modes of transportation for our students, shaping their journeys with memories of safety, health, and community spirit.

If you'd like to delve deeper into the Safe Routes to School program or Walk and Bike to School Day, feel free to contact us. We welcome your interest and would be delighted to consider your involvement as we prepare for the next significant event, offering insights on how you can instigate similar positive changes in your community. Read more about our work with the Napier Community here!