Better block PSU project brings safety improvements to Hood River middle school

[EurekAlert!] Better block PSU project brings safety improvements to Hood River middle school

Students at Hood River Middle School in Hood River, Oregon, will get some hands-on transportation experience next spring as they participate in the redesign of bike and pedestrian infrastructure around their school. Members of the (tentatively named) "Better Blocks Club," a new after-school extracurricular club, will get the chance to observe infrastructure, go on field trips by bike, learn urban planning best practices, and be involved in implementing a pilot safety project.

They'll be helping to plan and install new pop-up pedestrian and bike facilities at the intersection of May Street and 17th/18th Streets, a dogleg intersection adjacent to their school. The intersection design, which will include a protected intersection near the school and pop-up mobility lanes on the approaching streets, was created by PSU civil engineering students as part of the Better Block PSU program.

After the 6-month pilot demonstration is complete, the project will undergo community feedback and design modifications before infrastructure is permanently installed by the City of Hood River.

HOW DID THIS PROJECT COME ABOUT?

The project is led by Megan Ramey, Hood River County School District's Safe Routes to School Manager and founder of a bike tourism site, Bikabout, which encourages families and new riders to wander by bike in North America. In 2020 Ramey, then a parent of a 4th grader at May Street Elementary, organized a Bike Parade for National Walk & Roll to School Day. Inspired by the pandemic, an everyday Bike Train (a variation of the Walking School Bus) began as a permanent feature in March 2021 when the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) granted funding to support the bike train and add a walking bus.

Related: A similar bike bus made headlines this year in Portland, led by Alameda Elementary School PE teacher Sam Balto. Balto has been involved with Better Block PSU before too, heading up a Safer Route to the César Chávez School project in 2021. Ramey said of Balto: "We're rousers, partners in crime, and it's so wonderful because we're showing what can be done, both in a rural setting and a city setting, for bike train and bike bus; and hopefully inspiring a bunch of people around the country to do it."

The Bike Train was a catalyst for this project. Aware of the need for safety improvements at the intersection in front of the middle school, where her daughter is now a student, Ramey submitted a proposal to Better Block PSU, a partnership program between the volunteer-led group Better Block PDX and Portland State University. The project was selected to move forward, with PSU transportation students working to provide design and consulting services for the safety improvements.

"There's a couple of things that this project is doing. One is engaging the actual users of the design before it goes in the ground – So, the students. And second, it's engaging young people from the very beginning of a project, which is rarely ever done," Ramey said.

In the spring of 2022, PSU students Ashley Arries, Atiporn Huayhongtong, Ahmad Alateeqi, Ali AlQaatri, and Reem Almoumen prepared five design alternatives for Hood River Middle School Gateway bike/ped improvements at the May/17th/18th street intersection. The project analysis and creation of alternative facility designs were part of their coursework for Project Management and Design, a Civil & Environmental Engineering capstone course. May Street currently has no stop sign on the eastbound approach to the school, and the existing bike lane ends right before reaching the school. In front of the middle school is a high-use crosswalk with low visibility and no curb ramp. In fact, many pedestrian approaches to the middle school are lacking curb ramps. The design options provided by the students aim to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety and accessibility in what is currently a high-risk area for students.

The six-month pilot demonstration is supported by an ODOT Safety Grant. With the relatively inexpensive popup project, "we're bridging the gap between no infrastructure and one million dollar infrastructure," Ramey said.

STUDENT-LED DEMONSTRATION PROJECTS BRING SAFE ROUTES TO LIFE

The momentum and enthusiasm for active transportation safety in Hood River continues to build. Ramey gave a presentation about this project to a meeting of the Transportation Options Group of Oregon (TOGO) on Friday, September 30. Watch a recording of that presentation (starts at 59:30, passcode is w!m^B#&1 to access the Zoom), or view the presentation slides.

In addition to funding the bike train and walking bus, ODOT is also supporting a "safety rodeo" to add walking and biking curriculum to physical education classes, and a "Free Bikes 4 Kids" program, a partnership with Anson’s Bike Buddies where people can donate used bikes to be refurbished and provided to underserved children and their parents (around 100 bikes have been donated so far). In March and May of 2022, Ramey led safety rodeos at May Street and Mid Valley Elementary Schools, where "about sixty kids learned how to ride bikes from scratch."

The new pop-up project will be built in June or July of 2023, and the Better Blocks Club will be on the scene. Members of Hood River Middle School's new Better Blocks Club will be actively involved in the planning process for the intersection redesign, helping to brainstorm creative, low-cost materials and ways to implement the design. 

"Students will be installing it alongside the fire department, the police department, and the city public works department all together, and then it will be in the ground for five or six months. The students will take before-and-after travel counts and observe the behavior of both their peers and the local residents that are using it," Ramey said.

At the end of the year, members of the Better Blocks Club (or whatever the students end up naming it – Ramey wants them to have ownership of the club and their mission) will have the opportunity to become certified in responsible bicycling behavior. Tentatively called the bike ethics & safety certification, this certificate will be the first of its kind in the U.S., modeled after bike safety education programs in the Netherlands for 11 to 12 year olds.

Future goals, for Ramey, include launching an "E-biker’s Ed" class for high school students in Hood River. (Read "Dawn of the 'Throttle Kids'", a BikePortland article written by Megan Ramey in July 2022.)

In a 2018 Safe Routes to School survey, just 14% of middle school parents said they would let their kids walk or bike to school, despite saying they strongly support safe walking or biking access to school.

In May 2022, the Hood River City Council officially adopted a Safe Routes to School Plan.

Portland State University's Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) is home to the U.S. DOT funded National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC), the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation (IBPI), PORTAL, BikePed Portal and other transportation grants and programs. We produce impactful research and tools for transportation decision makers, expand the diversity and capacity of the workforce, and engage students and professionals through education and participation in research.

Source: EurekAlert!