Safe Routes to School

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Bicycle parking is a cheap way to encourage active trips to school. Source: Steven Vance

Introduction

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a public health effort to increase the number of children walking and cycling to school. Originating in Europe, SRTS came to America in the 1990s.<ref name="policy">Cowan, D., Hubsmith, D., & Ping, R. (2011). “Safe Routes to School Local Policy Guide.” Safe Routes to School National Partnership.</ref> The movement grew exponentially after the federal government dedicated $1.1 billion to SRTS programs in 2005. 13,000 schools across America have participated in SRTS projects, seeing significant increases in walking and biking and decreases in crashes and congestion.<ref>“Safe Routes to School: A Primer for Municipal Transportation Departments.” Safe Routes to School National Partnership.</ref>

Why Safe Routes to School?

Childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed in recent decades. Why obesity is a complex issue with many causes, it can’t be ignored that the percentage of kids walking or biking to school has plummeted at the same time. Safe Routes to School represented one step in the process of making American children healthier. At the same time these programs can increase safety, reduce congestion, and improve air quality.

The Five E’s

Safe Routes to School is based around a multifaceted approach known as the 5 E’s:

  • Education - Education is fundamental to SRTS. This means both educating children on the benefits of active transportation and educating drivers on road safety.
  • Encouragement - Successful SRTS programs require enthusiasm from students, parents, teachers, and the broader community.
  • Engineering - Creating pleasant mixed-use paths and enacting traffic-calming measures is vital for increasing safety.
  • Enforcement - On top of good engineering, coordinating with law enforcement and starting crossing guard programs is necessary to keep students safe.
  • Evaluation - Data should be collected before and after implementation of SRTS programs to track what does and does not work.

Getting Started

Once a transportation department has decided it wants to join the Safe Routes to School movement, it needs to figure out what steps to take first. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership has identified core strategies for getting involved with SRTS.

Programs

In some areas, the school district may already have a Safe Routes to School task force or traffic safety committee. In this case, the transportation department should work with these existing stakeholder organizations to see how it can provide support to ongoing efforts. Alternatively, a department can commit funds to start its own SRTS program in the community it serves. A strong existing partnership is not only more effective at implementing programs, but is also more competitive for federal grant money.

Partnerships

Safe Routes to School programs are inherently collaborative, involved departments of transportation, schools, and other stakeholders. Departments of transportation should work with school districts to ensure that every school has a forward-thinking travel plan. Partnering with community groups in particular is important for getting broad support for SRTS. In Los Angeles, widespread public support was vital for getting $1.2 million dedicated to a new SRTS plan.

Implementation

The program is established and partnerships have been formed, so now it’s time to get to work. One easy first step is to map out family-friendly routes to local schools. Parents accustomed to driving likely do not know the best way to walk or bike to school with their children. Of course, eventually these routes should be supplanted with new trails, greenways, and transit. Departments can also provide schools (as well as libraries, parks, and other destinations) with bike racks.

Safe Routes to School Policies

Fully separated paths are the safest places to walk and bike and are the most family-friendly. Source: Greenshire New Energy

Individual projects are a good start, but to make long-lasting improvements to a community SRTS must be implemented on a broader policy level. This can involve long-term plans, Complete Streets initiatives, school policies, and more.

City Plans

Long-range plans are fundamental element of the future of a community. Advocates should make sure that SRTS is incorporated into general plans, capital improvement plans, and other documents. Bicycle and pedestrian master plans are also an important part of SRTS.

Complete Streets

For the much of the past century, American streets have been dominated by the automobile. The Complete Streets movement seeks to redesign our transportation system so that pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users are not considered secondary to drivers. Complete Streets are characterized by road diets, bicycle lanes, improved crosswalks, and traffic calming. If streets are built to be supportive of all road users, then there will be less need to use SRTS-specific funds on engineering projects.

School Policies

Many of the policies that support SRTS must be adopted at the school-district level. Schools should be encouraged to adopt policies that prioritize safe passage for walking and biking students during pickup and drop-off hours. Schools should also educate students and parents about active transportation and provide secure bicycle parking. SRTS also requires a focus on school location policies, encouraging that new schools be built with accessibility in mind and that existing schools with high accessibility be protected during periods of closure and consolidation.

Equity

Safe Routes to School programs are especially important in low-income areas, which often have more dangerous streets and a much greater percentage of students walking and cycling to school. It’s easy to focus on politically powerful higher-income schools, but SRTS needs to be focused on equity. Schools in underserved neighborhoods must have at minimum equal access to resources as other schools, and given the bigger challenges these schools face there should be serious consideration given to the idea of making them higher priorities for improvement.

Funding

Safe Routes to School programs aren’t free. Even the simplest ones take staff time to implement, and at a higher level SRTS can involve major capital projects. While the federal government has allocated funds to the SRTS movement, this money is far too limited to meet national demand. Given this, other strategies must be pursued to support SRTS. There are a couple of tax-related funding mechanisms to consider. Many schools turn to property tax bonds to raise money for capital projects, and SRTS advocates should get involved with the bond process early on to try to get some of the money. SRTS projects can also be funded by sales tax increases; one third of California counties have passed some sort of transportation sales tax, and that money can be used for SRTS. Another option is direct traffic fine revenue in school zones to SRTS programs. It makes sense to use the money raised from unsafe driving to make the areas around schools safer.

Case Studies

Los Angeles, CA

In 2011, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Los Angeles Unified School District, and Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition began collaborating on a Safe Routes to School plan. The plan gave an overarching vision to what had previously been disjointed school safety efforts. The plan was incorporated into the city’s Bicycle Master Plan, which helped it get funding. The plan has a strong equity focus, with schools being prioritized by number of crashes, number of students living within a ¼ mile of school, number of students eligible for Free-Reduced Price Meals, and lack of previous access to SRTS funds.<ref name="policy" />

Marin County, CA

In 1997 Marin County tried to pass a transportation sales tax increase that would have given a small amount of money to bicycle and pedestrian projects and nothing for Safe Routes to School projects. The measure failed and the county went back to the drawing board, coordinating with stakeholders across the county to build support. The Marin County Bicycle Coalition was a major player, ensuring that bicycle and pedestrian safety and SRTS were prioritized. In 2004 voters approved ½ cent, 20-year transportation sales tax. In addition to other street safety projects, 11% of the money is allocated to SRTS programs and other school-related traffic safety initiatives.<ref name="policy" />

References

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Additional Reading

Boarnet, M.G., Anderson, C.L., Day, K., McMillan, T., & Alfonzo, M. (2005). "Evaluation of the California Safe Routes to School Legislation: Urban Form Changes and Children’s Active Transportation to School." American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

This study examined early Safe Routes to School efforts in California and found that the programs were effective in increasing the number of children walking and biking to school.