Fort Bragg, NC | September 24, 2012
The cars start lining up in front of Fort Bragg's Irwin Intermediate School about an hour before the end of school.
By the time the final bell rings, vehicles are snaking around the parking lot and into the street with engines running and air conditioners going.
Fort Bragg has a message for families who live on post less than a mile away from schools: "Walk, don't drive!"
Traffic is the No. 1 problem for the Fort Bragg "city," which has gotten more headquarters and modern new neighborhoods in recent years but has a road network largely stuck in the 1950s.
About 5,100 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade attend the federal school system that serves families living on Fort Bragg's main post and in the Linden Oaks housing area in Harnett County.
Col. Jeffrey M. Sanborn, who last summer became the garrison commander - Fort Bragg's equivalent of a city manager - wants to persuade on-post parents to get out of the driver's seat and hit the street.
Irwin Intermediate School is in the heart of the three-school Triangle, ground zero for on-post traffic tangles. Within 100 yards is Murray Elementary. Within 250 yards is Butner Elementary. Staggered release times don't solve the problem.
"What we are going to repeat over and over is if you live within walking distance and it's a great day for walking, give it a try," said Emily Marsh, the superintendent. "We want our children to be fit. What better way than to walk with a parent? Walking is great exercise. You don't need any equipment. Almost anyone can do it."
Officials don't have to persuade "walking parents" like Melinda Thayer and Ashley Ovsijenko, who walk with their children together.
"If I'm going to work out anyway, I might as well walk to school," Thayer said. "I'm not spending any money on gas. I'm not polluting anything. My kids are learning how to walk. We are getting much faster."
Thayer tells stories of passing stalled cars and getting to school and back home faster than her neighbors who drive.
"I walk for the children," Ovsijenko said. "I find it gets them more mentally prepared to start school. They like to socialize with the kids as they are walking in and for exercise."
When it's raining, Thayer and her children put on rubber boots and rain jackets.
"We are fine," she said.
The school crossings would be safer if more people walked, Thayer said.
Under Fort Bragg policy, children below fifth grade must be accompanied by an adult.
"If a child at the elementary level lives more than a mile from school or if there are safety concerns, then we provide busing," Marsh said.
A mile or less is considered a walking zone, Marsh said. Middle-schoolers are bused if they live more than 1.5 miles away, she said. The Biazza Ridge neighborhood is not within walking distance of any school.
"Most of our schools now, the majority of our children live within walking distance of the school," Marsh said.
Pope and Holbrook elementary schools have large numbers of families who walk to school, Marsh said.
Irwin Principal Charlie Council is working with his nearby counterparts to come up with competitions to increase the percentage of walkers.
"If my school wins, then you've got to put my mascot in your main lobby for the month," Council said. "Anything to build it up. We'll try anything."