THE WHEELS ON THE WALKING BUS GO ‘HMM’

walking-bus1Transportation planner Mike Dannemiller leads a group through the West Side for the Red Bank Safe Routes initiative. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

Mike Dannemiller, a cheery, bespectacled transportation planner from north Jersey, led a group up the sidewalk from Red Bank Primary School, along the north side of River Street to Leighton Avenue Tuesday night, stopping at random intervals to quiz the adults walking two-abreast behind him.

“How’s that feel for you?” he’d ask.

The responses were mixed; some said it was OK, one said “it feels different now,” and another mentioned how he narrowly avoided stepping on a chicken bone.

On the return trip, he asked again, and got the kind of response he seemed to be looking for.

“It was a little claustrophobic,” said Jim Willis (redbankgreen‘s tech guy, for disclosure), referring to a few trees along the east side of Leighton Avenue that were starting to take up some sidewalk space.

“That’s really why you need  to go out and walk the streets,” Dannemiller said, “and not just plan the paths from satellites in outer space.”

The subtleties of a simple walk may seem petty, but really, these are important things to guys like Dannemiller.

walking-bus2Walkers trek up River Street to get a ped-first idea of what it’s like to see the West Side from a non-driver perspective. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

It’s people like him who are going to help make places like Red Bank more walkable, which was the whole purpose of his exercise.

Dannemiller, along with state officials involved in street-safety issues, gave a presentation to the few dozen who showed up on the benefits of implementing a walking bus system — just one component of the locally-started Safe Routes initiative, which has recently taken hold in Red Bank and appears to be gaining traction.

The group recently secured a grant from the state to lay out plans that will make the borough a more walking- and biking-friendly place.

Under that umbrella falls the walking bus, a simple idea that Elise Bremer-Nei, a coordinator for the Department of Transportation, said is “just like a regular school bus. It just doesn’t have the bus.”

It’s a way to get kids to school that may not seem so radical to anybody who grew up just a few decades ago. Parents — grandparents and guardians, for that matter — coordinate with others along a pre-determined path to school to pick up and walk school children to the next safe point, be it at another parent’s house or directly to the school.

But it’s much more intricate than that, said Dannemiller. Which is why he took the group of interested residents on a mini-tour of a possible route from and to the primary school.

There are less-safe intersections, walkways and cluttered walking areas to consider, he said, in order to make the walking bus idea — which has become a recent phenomenon in the U.S. — a workable one.

It’s also one, he said, that school districts with shrinking budgets, like Red Bank and Point Pleasant, which had representatives in attendance Tuesday night as part of a joint meeting, should embrace.

“I don’t know what your budget situation is like,” Dannemiller said. “My crystal ball is no better that yours. But you’ve got a lot of courtesy busing, and that’s always the first to go.”

Willis says the primary school’s principal, Rick Cohen, is a major proponent of the walking bus system because so many of the school’s students already walk there.

Marylou Burden, a grandparent and avid walker, couldn’t be more for the idea.

“Everybody here walks in the street,” she said. “Very few use the sidewalks.”

Does she see the idea as a way of the future, or perhaps a resurrection of days past?

“I do. I do,” she said. “Especially with the cuts.”

It’s a perfectly viable, clean and sustainable way for kids to get to school in any case, Dannemiller said. Many towns, like the one he lives in — West Orange – have taken a shine to the walking bus idea, he said, and it has worked out well.

Just takes a little effort and coordination to make it work in Red Bank, he said.

Willis said there wouldn’t be anything more to implement it in town, either, except for some willing volunteers.

“Sometimes folks need that little push to say, ‘Oh, yes, I will be there. Yes, I will meet you. You can count on me,” Dannemiller said. “If you just try it once, you’ll find out how good it is.”

The Safe Routes group is planning to meet with a borough-selected planning firm to work out the scope of Red Bank’s Safe Routes program, which will include the walking bus initiative.