Making school commutes safer in Colombia

Bogotá’s latest innovation in street safety: the human centipede.

Whether it’s using mimes to shame bad drivers or turning the city over to bicycles on Sundays, Bogotá is known for fostering a certain human inventiveness in its streets.

Now comes the Colombian capital’s latest innovation in street safety: the centipede.

The idea is simple: For kids walking to school along Bogotás busy streets, there’s safety in numbers. In the morning, children join adult guides at various pickup points, with the group swelling until there are dozens of kids walking to school together. On the return trip in the afternoon, it goes in reverse — with the centipede shrinking as children peel off for home.

It’s not much different from what some in the United States call a “walking school bus.” But with the centipede, the guides aren’t just escorting them to and from school, they’re also leading them in games — what project lead Carolina Avila Morales calls “an urban adventure” designed to raise awareness of their surroundings and even flex some math muscles.

The centipede is just one part of a wider effort in Bogotá to make school commutes safer, shorter, and happier. Many children in the city of 8 million commute as much as two hours each way. The city also is experimenting with bicycle caravans and bus-only traffic lanes to shorten travel times, all elements of a program called Los Niños Primero, for which Bogotá was among the winners of the 2016 Mayors Challenge.

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A pilot of the centipede approach began in April in a working-class neighborhood called Lisboa. On a typical day, it includes about 30 children, aged 8 to 12, who used to walk alone along busy and often dangerous streets. For this group, the longest walk is about 30 minutes.

The kids don’t play games on every walk — organizers don’t want to overdo it. But the kids clearly enjoy the games, which may involve counting the number of steps between landmarks or adding up the numbers in street addresses, for example. At the end of each journey, they can pick a happy face or sad face to describe their walk; they give more happy faces on days when there’s a game to play.

“Most of the kids don’t have a playtime other than the one the school provides,” said Jessica Kisner, the Bogotá team’s citizen engagement coordinator. “This time is essential for them. They don’t have much game time at home.”

The pilot concludes in June, and is later expected to grow to three other schools in the same neighborhood.

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