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Starkville, Mississippi: Mobilizing a college town

Starkville MapCookie Leffler spends much of her time trying to give away money. As the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, part of her job is raising awareness of federal funding available to develop safe ways for kids to walk and bicycle to school.

Community leaders in Starkville, Mississippi, didn’t wait to get a call from Leffler. Starkville in Motion (SIM), a grassroots organization that promotes the creation and improvement of bike lanes, sidewalks and trails in Starkville and Oktibbeha County, called Leffler about funding soon after learning of the newly formed SRTS program. Leffler visited the city—home to Mississippi State University, less than three hours northeast of Jackson—to meet with SIM and learn more about its vision.

“They have so much energy and enthusiasm,” says Leffler. “They have the support of the mayor, aldermen, media, university and school district.”

Ron Cossman, SIM member and research scientist at MSU, believes parents were key in generating interest to push transportation alternatives in Starkville.

“Parents want to see their children more active and safe,” says Cossman, citing widespread support for creating more walkable neighborhoods that are connected to local schools and the university campus.

Leffler sees lack of connection between local schools and neighborhoods as a key hurdle to creating safe routes to schools.

“All they need to do is complete those routes—it will open up the neighborhoods and help them connect. They don’t have that now,” she says. “The community would become walkable and bikable, not just the routes to and from school.”

SIM invited students from MSU’s landscape architecture program to conduct walkability studies, reviewing sidewalks and bicycle routes to determine existing links—and gaps—between schools and neighborhoods. SIM also met with teachers and school officials to discuss ways to encourage more kids to walk and bike, such as offering bicycle storage. A proposal for more than $1 million in funding for the SRTS program is currently in the works.

The effort to create a more activity friendly Starkville is timely. According to 2005 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mississippi is one of only three states with obesity rates of 30 percent and higher.

“The public perception is that not only do we need to improve livability, but there is a public health issue,” says Cossman. Besides pushing for safe routes to school, SIM is creating networks of bike paths, sidewalks and crosswalks, and developing long-term community goals for becoming more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

One such project is a multi-use path that would connect the community sportsplex, local schools and the university. To solicit community input and support, SIM invited all property owners and homeowners along the planned 3.4-mile path to a public hearing. University administrators support the project as a way to reduce traffic congestion and nurture a sense of community for students and faculty in and around campus. SIM expects confirmation from the state DOT for a $1.2-million grant to build the Lynn Lane path, to be matched in part by funds from the City and university.

Making such projects successful also means encouraging residents to choose active, healthy lifestyles, and Cossman is optimistic.

“Public perception, as well as the necessary infrastructure, will turn the corner when residents feel that walking or cycling is just as viable as using a vehicle around town,” he says.

Tools you can use:

Steps for creating a Safe Routes to School program

Walkability checklist

National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse

Obesity trends

Bike Starkville

Related Content:

This comprehensive, user-friendly website can help you learn how to use federal Transportation Enhancements (TE) funds to expand travel options and enhance the transportation experience in your com ...