If you remember a time when almost all kids biked or walked to school, you're not alone. A generation ago, it was a part of growing up. But in the last 30 years, heavier traffic, wider roads and more dangerous intersections have made it riskier for students walking or pedaling. Today, fewer than 15 percent of kids bike or walk to school compared with more than 50 percent in 1969.
In the last five to 10 years, Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs in a few communities across the United States have been making it easy and safe for kids to get out of their parents' cars and school buses. The success rate has caught the attention of Congress. In 2005, lawmakers reauthorized the federal transportation legislation called SAFETEA-LU, and the federal version of this grassroots movement was born. SAFETEA-LU will provide $612 million to primary and middle schools from 2005 to 2009.
The goals of this program are threefold:
Enable and encourage children, including those with disabilities, to walk or bicycle to school.
Make bicycling and walking to school a safer and more appealing transportation alternative, thereby encouraging a healthy and active lifestyle from an early age.
Facilitate the planning, development and execution of projects and activities that will improve safety and reduce traffic, fuel consumption and air pollution.
A plan for change
Great technological progress over the last 30 years has given Americans a number of advances in medicine. Unfortunately, these advances are not enough to combat the most critical health problem Americans are facing: obesity. When less than 20 percent of kids within a mile of school are walking there today, compared with 87 percent a generation ago, it should not be a surprise that childhood obesity has tripled in that time. Studies show that most inactive, overweight kids carry that weight into adulthood. Bicycling and walking to school are easy ways for kids to get into the healthful habits of daily exercise.
For those frustrated with a morning commute, it is revealing to note that 20 to 30 percent of all morning traffic consists of parents driving their kids to school. This trend creates a number of problems: it congests streets and contributes to air pollution. The volume of cars on the road and unsafe driving habits make it dangerous for children and parents alike to consider walking or biking to school. To top it off, a number of schools have no safe access for anything except cars or school buses.
Fortunately, lawmakers have listened to health and transportation advocates, and have provided a solution. Under the SAFETEA-LU legislation, each state will appoint a SRTS coordinator to serve as a central contact. Rules will vary from state to state, but most schools; state, regional and local agencies; as well as non-profit organizations will be able to apply for and receive funds that go to both infrastructure and non-infrastructure projects. Federal SRTS funds do not require matching local funds. Each state will receive a minimum of $1 million for fiscal years 2005 to 2009. Solicitation timelines will vary from state to state.
The money is available for a range of projects. Infrastructure improvements may include bike lanes, trails, sidewalks, traffic calming, safer street crossings, speed-reduction programs and bike racks around schools. Non-infrastructure programs may include encouragement programs; public-awareness campaigns; outreach to the media and community; traffic education and enforcement; education sessions on bicycle and pedestrian safety, health and the environment; and funding for training, volunteers and managers of Safe Routes to School programs. Federal requirements specify that a minimum of 10 percent and a maximum of 30 percent of the funds be spent on non-infrastructure programs.
Projects and activities in each category should directly support increased safety and convenience for elementary and middle school children in grades K to 8 to bicycle or walk to school. Projects may benefit high-school-age youth or the general public indirectly; however, those constituencies cannot be the sole or primary beneficiaries.
Infrastructure projects constructed with these funds must abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).
Making it work
Though the problems seem daunting, the SRTS program takes a comprehensive approach through the five Es:
This strategy seems to be the most obvious approach to success, but it cannot succeed without the others. It can refer to any infrastructure project that includes planning, operation or maintenance of traffic-control devices or physical infrastructure. Typically, these are viewed as high-dollar projects, but success can come from something as simple as improving crosswalk visibility.
Speed is the key factor in fatalities involving crashes between motorists and pedestrians. Enforcing speed and other traffic laws for drivers, pedestrians and bikers make safer streets for everyone.
Anyone can help encourage kids to bike and walk to school. It often is a low-cost, high-success way to integrate with the other strategies. Simply organizing an event like “Walk to School Day” promotes both the benefits and fun of the SRTS program.
Encouragement works hand-in-hand with education. Events and promotions work only when people are given solid bike, pedestrian and traffic education before hitting the streets. And education is not limited to students; parents, teachers, drivers and community members all will benefit from such education.
If a program is to succeed, it must be measured and evaluated. This strategy ensures that best practices are recognized and passed on, and that improvements are made when needed.
Examples of projects and programs eligible for funding*
- Teacher training on SRTS.
- Student education programs on SRTS.
- Distribution of SRTS information to parents/family.
- Crosswalk guard training.
- Share the Road.
- Street crossing safety improvements.
- Other spot improvements in existing pedestrian/bike ways.
- Creating new pedestrian/bike ways.
- Traffic calming.
- Bicycle parking.
*Examples only — see each state's SRTS application or talk to an SRTS coordinator for what projects/programs qualify in a certain state.
In millions, the amount of funding provided by SRTS in 2005.
In millions, the amount of funding to be provided by SRTS in 2009.