Safe Routes to School
The goal of Safe Routes to School Programs (SRTS) is to increase the amount of walking and bicycling trips to and from school while simultaneously improving safety for children walking or bicycling to school. SRTS programs are community-based and are intended to be comprehensive in nature. Programs include engineering and enforcement activities to improve traffic safety and to reduce or eliminate risky elements of the traffic environment around primary and secondary schools so children can safely walk or bicycle to school. Programs may also include education of children, school personnel, parents, guardians, community members, and law enforcement officers about safe walking and bicycling behavior and safe driving behavior around pedestrians and bicyclists.
SRTS efforts typically include a combination of Es to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety through encouragement, engineering, education, and enforcement. Programs can also include evaluation, engagement, and equity considerations. As of June 2020 the Safe Routes Partnership recommends a 6E framework that does not include enforcement. A 2018 systematic review of published evaluations of SRTS programs found that encouragement was the most common “E,” represented as an intervention approach in 14 of the 22 reviewed articles (Buttazzoni et al., 2018).
Education and training can be effective in teaching children and their caregivers:
- how to evaluate and choose the safest routes for walking or bicycling to and from school,
- what safe behaviors are associated with walking and biking,
- instilling the need to practice and model safe behaviors when walking, biking, or driving around children walking/biking to school,
- how to use common engineering treatments to enhance their safety (sidewalks, crosswalks),
- the need to adhere to crossing guard direction, and
- to abide by traffic laws, especially in and around school zones.
See the countermeasures Elementary-Age Child Pedestrian Training, Reduce and Enforce Speed Limits, and Enforcement Strategies for additional information. Safety is a key concern in the decision to participate in SRTS and associated programs (Safe Routes to School Partnership, n.d.). Improvements to the road infrastructure with traffic calming measures, improved walking and biking facilities, policies to support active transportation, and community engagement and mobilization are key to addressing safety concerns.
The CDC identified SRTS programs as one of eight non-clinical, context-based, community-wide interventions that have the potential to improve population health. See CDC’s Health Impact in 5 Years (HI-5) strategies for health transformation. Walking or biking to school has additional benefits to students’ health. Studies have found an association between active transport to school and lower BMIs as well as higher performance on standardized tests (Active Living Research, 2015).
With the establishment of the national SRTS program in 2005 all 50 States and the District of Columbia initiated SRTS programs. As of January 31, 2017, some $1.06 billion out of the $1.147 billion in SAFETEA-LU funds apportioned to local and statewide SRTS programs had been allocated. At that time 19,378 schools, representing an estimated 7.6 million students, had received funding, or were slated to receive funds for SRTS programs. Historically, approximately 68% of award recipients were classified as Title 1 (low-income) schools, a finding that is relevant because areas with lower median income are over-represented in bicyclist- and pedestrian-related crashes (McArthur et al., 2014). From 2005 to 2012 nearly 14,000 schools received SRTS funding (McDonald, 2015).
See the SRTS program for a brief history of the program, including funding.
It is established that SRTS programs can lead to increases in walking and bicycling to school (McDonald et al., 2014; Stewart et al., 2014), but as with other comprehensive programs, it is challenging to design a rigorous evaluation that could disentangle the effects of engineering improvements from other interventions and demonstrate a safety improvement. In terms of mode share, McDonald et al. (2014) examined 801 treatment and control schools in 3 States and District of Columbia and found a relative change of 31% in the proportion of students walking and bicycling to school after 5 years of participating in a SRTS program.
Studies that have examined SRTS-funded engineering improvements, without consideration of programmatic elements, have found injury reductions. In New York City, researchers analyzed 10 years of crash data and found that the annual rate of pedestrian injury decreased 33% for school-age children and 14% for all other ages in Census tracts that received SRTS projects compared to no change in rates for other Census tracts (specifically during typical school travel times during) (Dimaggio & Li, 2013). Since schools were chosen for treatment because of high crash rates, it is possible that some of the crash reductions observed were due to a natural tendency for crashes to return toward an “average” level. In California, researchers looked at 75 constructed countermeasures at 47 schools and compared changes in crashes within a 250-foot buffer around each treatment to crashes beyond the 250-foot buffer, but within a quarter mile of the school. They found a statistically significant decrease in all pedestrian-vehicle crashes, but the decrease for 5- to 18-year-olds was not statistically significant (Ragland et al., 2014).
Some studies have documented dramatic decreases in child pedestrian injuries in geographies with active SRTS programs or other comprehensive pedestrian safety programs, but these evaluations did not include control sites, mention potential changes in exposure, or perform statistical analysis beyond reporting descriptive statistics. For example, a 15-year review of the WalkSafe program in Miami-Dade County, Florida, noted that trauma data reveal a 78% decrease in pediatric injuries during the lifespan of the pedestrian education program (Delouche et al., 2019) and an examination of a pedestrian safety initiative in Montgomery County, Maryland, noted a 79% decrease in pedestrian crashes around SRTS schools (Dunckel et al., 2014). In the latter, the 79% finding is only noted in the abstract and a graphic, it is not described in the main body of the article. Another study looked at pedestrian and bicyclist crashes involving children in 18 States before and after 2008 (the year with the highest frequency of SRTS awards given to States in the study period) and compared to crashes involving adults during the same time (DiMaggio et al., 2016). The authors found a reduction in injury and fatality risk in school-age children compared to adults but acknowledge that examining data at the State-level did not allow them to separate the effects of SRTS from other trends.
Education and encouragement activities associated with SRTS may be low cost and may also be eligible for grant funding through the State, and perhaps other sources. Activities formerly eligible under Federal SR2S funding are now eligible under the Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside program outlined in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but funding priorities are established by each State. State contacts may be located on the Safe Routes Partnership website, or search individual States’ DOT websites for information about TAP and SR2S funding. NCSRTS provides downloadable material for State and local SRTS programs.
Time to implement:
Once the school or district has decided to implement a SRTS program, a range of material, including an online step-by-step guide on getting started, is available from NCSRTS. Programs funded through State DOTs typically require applications on a funding cycle and can take significantly longer to implement. The NCSRTS found that schools that were able to increase the percentage of students walking or bicycling to school were more likely to have a leader within the school to promote SRTS, frequent events to reinforce walking or biking to school, strong parental support, and supportive policies (NCSRTS & FHWA, 2015).