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Neighborhoods Get Schooled in Methods to Promote Walkability

The words "pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure" probably cannot motivate the masses the same way an unguarded 8-year-old in a faded crosswalk can. That's understandable. According to the Centers for Disease Control, two-thirds of drivers nationwide exceed speed limits around schools. The result is that one child ages 5-15 per 200,000 are killed as pedestrians each year. 

Funding the sorts of safety projects—and neighborhood co-benefits—that would improve those grisly statistics tend to make up a small fraction of transportation spending in the United States. But a safety program aimed at schoolchildren that originated a little over a decade ago in Marin County has found a way to introduce pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure funding into budgets at nearly every level of government.

Tugging at the heartstrings of parents while also promoting policies near and dear to smart growth advocates, Safe Routes to School (SRTS) reaches out to school officials, parents, students and local government officials on encouraging more kids to walk to school and making it safer for those who do. While the program is explicitly focused on the safety of schoolchildren, urban planners see it as another way to bolster the case—and get public support—for programs that make neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly for everyone. 

"This program is one of the best leverage points for creating more walking and biking in our communities," said Jessica Meaney, California Policy Manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a network of organizations focused on implementing Safe Routes to School programs.

Two generations ago, walking and biking didn't need advocacy. They were the norm and driving to school was the curious exception. According to Low-Income Schools and Communities Study released last year by Caltrans, as recently as 1980 the majority of children living within a 2-mile radius of a school walked or bicycled to school.  Today, that number has dropped to less than 15%.  Not coincidentally, said the study, 5% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 were considered to be overweight or obese in 1980.  "These statistics point to a rise in preventable childhood diseases, worsening air quality and congestion around schools, and missed opportunities for children to grow into self reliant, independent adults," the study concludes.

In recognition of these trends, SRTS caught on in Marin because, according to the Marin Bicycle Coalition, up to 27% of the county's morning commuters consisted of parents driving their children to school in the largely affluent, suburban county. Ironically, this contributed to a higher-than-average carbon footprint for the environmentally conscious county. The coalition then set up nine test cases in a pilot program. The coalition reports that by the end of the program, the participating schools experienced a 57% increase in the number of children walking and biking and a 29% decrease in the number of children arriving alone in a car – all without heavy investments in development or infrastructure. Instead, SRTS attempts to make profound changes through interventions as subtle as signage, bike lanes and routes, sidewalk fixes, and outreach campaigns. 

The program went countywide in 2003 and was incorporated into federal transportation funding authorization of 2005. 

Ten years since its inception, pending state legislation seeks to make the program even more widespread and to engrain the program in neighborhoods that are not nearly as affluent as those in Marin County. 

AB 539 would authorize local governments to double the base fines for speeding in school zones where existing law prohibits local governments from reducing the speed limit. AB 516, sponsored by Manuel Pérez (D-Indio), would help ensure low-income communities are able to bring SRTS programs to their local schools. AB 516 would require that at least 50% of grants go to those communities and it would require greater public participation in the SRTS planning process. 

AB 516 has been re-referred to the Committee on Appropriations while AB 539 was passed by the Assembly Public Safety Committee.  

AB 516 was prompted in part by the Caltrans study that found that only 44% of state Safe Routes to School grants went to low-income communities. The report notes that community infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods often dissuades children from walking and biking. The report notes that low-income youth are up to three times more likely to be obese than higher-income peers and that these obesity levels are due in part to the lack of opportunities for active recreation in low-income neighborhoods. 

"Disadvantaged and rural communities tend to lack the infrastructure -- sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, etc. -- that help to make communities walkable and improve quality of life," said Pérez. "The Safe Routes to School program has been an effective tool to improve walkability and pedestrian and bicyclist safety." 

The report notes that the governor's Strategic Growth Council has recommended that investments in personal mobility be targeted at low-income neighborhoods.  

Caltrans recently issued a call for projects to fund $42 million in projects over the next two years and has established a new website -- http://www.casaferoutestoschool.org -- to assist cities interested in implementing SRTS programs. That funding depends on the passage of a new federal Transportation Act. 

Visually, the program can be summed up by the street signs commonly seen around school zones: two stick figure children carrying books as they walk to class. But in reality, those signs have a decreasing amount of relevance today. The majority of children arrive at elementary school in the back seat of a car. Safe Routes to School's  aims to change that habit. The benefits, they say, range from decreased dependence on autos to the health benefits of walking to greater connections between kids and their neighborhoods. 

These statistics are, in part, a legacy of school busing programs that became widespread in the 1970s. While aiming to create more diverse student bodies, those programs also took some students away from local schools, thus forcing them to rely on buses or parents and erasing the traditional walk to school. At the same time, the preponderance of those cars and buses makes many routes less safe and palatable for those kids who can walk. 

"15 to 20 percent of morning congestion is caused by parents dropping their kids off at school," said Alexis Lantz, Planning and Policy Director at the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. "And, I think, of the school-age children in the city of Los Angeles, 25 percent of them are overweight."

The dual goals of reducing congestion and improving the health of students are part of the reason the City of Los Angeles recently approved a $1.2 million study to set up a citywide Safe Routes to School program and collision database. It's an effort to streamline the city's applications for Safe Routes to School grant money available through the Caltrans and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration. Both of these funding programs are administered by Caltrans. 

By collecting data on where collisions are occurring, by what transportation mode, and near which schools, the study and database are expected to help the city identify areas in need of attention before accidents occur.

"Before, whenever there was a fatal collision, everybody would race to the site to see how we could have prevented it," said Bruce Gillman, a spokesperson at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

The city had previously applied for grant money, but always on an ad hoc basis by council district. The citywide program will replace those 15 district applications with one citywide application, a move expected to greatly increase the chances of winning these competitive grants.

"It will be an infusion of literally millions of dollars," Gillman said.

The funding itself is intended for a combination of infrastructure projects and non-infrastructure efforts. The latter mainly takes the form of safety education campaigns, which are as important as any improvements made to the built environment, according to education advocates.

"It's one thing to put a sidewalk out there, and it's one thing if you put out bike lanes, but you really need to, especially with kids, do the safety education. Especially with parents," Lantz said. "Parents have their own fears about walking and biking to school, and that extends beyond just road safety to personal safety in regards to crime and gangs."

And being that these education-heavy programs don't necessarily require shovels in the ground, they are able to cheaply achieve some of the walkability goals of the smart growth movement.

"It creates an environment of people being out and walking the streets and doing activities that really support place-making and community-building," said Pippa Brashear, project manager at the Project for Public Spaces.  

Gail Carlson is the public health program coordinator in Riverside County, where she has been working to implement a Safe Routes to School program at 13 elementary schools. The program's goal is to get more kids walking and biking to school, and for Carlson, that means focusing on education.

"Even though sidewalks are being built, kids aren't walking. For whatever reason that is. So we need to complement that with the education and the encouragement and provide that vision that there are alternative modes that kids can get to and from school safely," said Carlson.

The Riverside County program runs Safe Routes to School workshops to educate parents, and is encouraging programs in schools like "Walking Wednesdays" and "Fit Fridays." Some schools have upwards of 200 kids participating in these events twice a week. One elementary school has a Safe Routes to School page in its yearbook.

In addition to these educational efforts, Carlson said a few infrastructural changes have also been made since the county's Safe Routes to School program started in 2008. Visually striking red curbs and curbcuts are some of the basic improvements they've seen, but there have also been signs posted along some "walking bus" routes – paths used by parents who will walk their kids to school and pick up other kids along the way.

But getting more kids walking to school takes more than just preaching the gospel. Often what drives implementation of a program is getting stakeholders to recognize when there are safety problems.

"It means working with the teachers, principals, parent organizations, the students themselves to identify the problem areas, do walk audits, do bike audits, and create encouragement programs that don't necessarily take funding, they just take parent and staff involvement, and work with the community to build that support," said Lantz.

And once these audits are done and programs are starting to form, cities have higher odds of winning grant money from the state or federal government to continue the work. This is good news for kids trying to get to school safety on foot or bike, but it can also be a boon for cities with few other resources to dedicate to pedestrian and bicycle safety efforts.

"If a city has gotten a Safe Routes to School grant, that could very well be one of the few sources they're getting to directly address pedestrian safety and bike safety," said Meaney.

At the same time, a SRTS program may depend on the nature of the surrounding environment. Thus, locales that intend to implement a Safe Routes program have incentive to consider the broader implications of place-making. 

"It's sort of a chicken or an egg: Place-making supports SRTS (and vice-versa)," said Brashear, of project for Public Spaces. She said it's no good to have "kids walk down an uninhabited street with poor facilities or poor urban design." 

Brashear recommends that planners use place-making strategies "by bringing activities to areas around a school and having design for a public space and public rights of way, that not only brings safety but also comfort and excitement. That really goes hand-in-hand with laying out the sidewalk." 

Meaney said Safe Routes to School programs have impacts beyond the school zone. They also help cities comply with the stipulations of SB 375, the statewide law that requires regional targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And by emphasizing safety around schools, the program makes those areas safer not only for kids—and other vulnerable populations—but for the entire community.

"I think everybody benefits when we live in neighborhoods that kids can walk and bike to," said Meaney.

Contacts:

Caltrans Safe Routes to Schools Program

Low-Income Schools and Communities Study (.pdf)

Pippa Brashear, Project Manager, Project for Public Spaces, 212.620.5660

Gail Carlson, Coordinator, Riverside County Public Health Program, 951.358.7173

Alexis Lantz, Planning & Policy Director, L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, 213.629.2142

Jessica Meaney, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, 213.221.7179

 

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