Teach Your Children Well: Safe Routes to School

In my first post, The Great Debate: Vehicular vs. Segregated Cycling, education for cyclists came up as a critical issue both in my research and in the response.

Whether you ride on the road among four-wheeled gas-powered vehicles, or you prefer riding in a space designated for human-powered vehicles as an adult, creating a community of safe, confident and healthy cyclists begins with helping kids and families navigate the roads and trails. With the mission of assisting communities in their efforts to make walking and biking to school a viable option for children, Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs across the country provide municipalities with the tools necessary to build and implement initiatives to increase the numbers of students traveling to and from school on foot and by bike.

Image Credit: Streetsblog.org

Not surprisingly, today’s Safe Routes to School programs in the United States are modeled after Denmark’s Safe Routes to School initiative that began in the early 1970s.   In 1997, the first of many programs in the US began in the Bronx, NY. In the spring of 2006, the National Center for Safe Routes to School was established, thanks to federal legislation passed by Congress in 2005..  This legislation not only set aside $612 million for the program over a period of four years, but also mandated that each state appoint a SRTS Coordinator to lead the effort at the state level.   The National Center for SRTS collects and distributes an incredible amount of information, from stats on current mode share to guides to understanding how policy and infrastructure influence how people travel.

Three years into the program, SRTS released a progress report and stated that 4,566 schools in the US have been awarded funds to develop and enhance their programs, and new efforts continue to be made in communities that appreciate the successes of these existing programs.   And there are some incredible success stories. In Auburn, Washington, the school district received $185,000 to restructure an unfriendly, high traffic road near Olympic Middle School.   With the creation of a shared use path, crosswalks, lighting, and signs as well as the execution of education and encouragement events, the number of students that walk or bike to school increased to 20%–a percentage that is above the national average.   Overall, the district now saves $220,000 per year in transportation costs, not only justifying the investment from the federal government, but also creating space in the budget for more important things. (Call me crazy, but if asked to make a choice between funding buses within a mile of schools or investing is cost-saving infrastructure so that we can provide kids with books, art supplies, and teachers, I’m going with the latter every time.)

Safe Routes to School is an incredible initiative, but it is still in the very early stages of helping us change the way that we think about communities, health and transportation in the United States.   Out of nearly 130,000 families surveyed between April 2007 and May 2009, only 2% reported that their elementary and middle school children rode bikes to and from school.   Another 11-15% walk to school rather than riding in a family vehicle or on a school bus.   There are examples of impressive improvement such as Auburn, Washington and many others, but the majority of districts still rely heavily on bus and automobile transportation (and even in improved Auburn, walkers and bikers are still the minority).   Would it be overly dramatic and cliche for me to assert that in a country where we have serious and growing issues with pollution, obesity and funding for education, we need bikes to save our kids and therefore the future of our nation.   Probably.   But I said it anyway.

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