Safe Route to School has huge impact on child safety & walking rates

March 10, 2015

It may be widespread from Minnesota to Georgia now, but the Safe Route to School program (or SRTS) was first pioneered by California back in 1999. A recent study out of Berkeley, “Examining Long-Term Impact of California Safe Routes to School Program: 10 Years Later,” takes a look at the impact of the program on safety and on walking and biking rates. The study, which was led by David R. Ragland, Swati Pande, John Bigham and Jill F. Cooper and published by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, analyzed the program’s impact on safety and mobility.

child on bicycle

California’s Safe Routes to School program has been shown to markedly increase walking and improve safety among children, impacting health and accident rates. Image from Felix Tsao.

Everyone has a relative with a story that starts something like this: “When I was your age, I used to walk three miles in blizzard-like conditions to get to school…” But the truth is, he or she is probably right. Back in 1969, 42% of kids age 5-18 walked to school. In 2009, that percentage was down to just 12.7%. What’s behind the drop? One 2008 CDC study found that traffic safety was a major barrier to walking to school; kids are involved in a third of all pedestrian-car crashes.

As for biking, kids age 5-15 bike more than members of any other age group; in 2011, kids under 16 accounted for 21% of all injuries and 11% of fatalities of those killed in bike crashes. Distance between school and home is a major factor in terms of how likely it is a child will walk to school–kids who lived within a mile of their school were three times more likely to walk than to travel by private vehicle, according to research.

SRTS’s guiding principle is that engineering solutions likeadding sidewalks, bike paths and bike lanes can positively impact pedestrian and biker safety. Other engineering safeguards include providing marked crosswalks and crossings at traffic lights, offering pedestrian-only crossing times, and reducing the amount of traffic near schools. “At three elementary schools in California, parents reported a 38% increase in how often children walked to school after an SRTS sidewalk improvement was completed,” notes the study.

The goals of California’s program, which dedicate federal transportation funds to making engineering changes near schools, are to increase walking and biking among elementary, middle and high school students, and to drop the rate of injuries and fatalities among kids. “The dual program goals are key: focusing on safety as well as mobility means that broader public health goals can be attained compared with just focusing on mobility or safety alone.” In California, the SRTS program funded 570 projects, equally distributed throughout the state, between 1999-2006 at a cost of more than $190 million.

This study in particular focused on assessing the long-term impact of SRTS improvements on safety and on kids’ rates of biking and walking. Researchers compared school areas that had SRTS projects with areas that were likely to be unaffected by SRTS projects, looking collision data pre- and post-SRTS project construction. They also used parent surveys to pinpoint barriers to kids’ walking to school. (Read the study for more detailed information on the researchers’ methods.)

SRTS infrastructure improvements, such as a sidewalk, led to an increase in pedestrian safety within 250 feet of the improvement. The study also found “evidence of mode shift” — in other words, a change in transportation — in the area of the improvement, too. The study found that SRTS programs are both beneficial and “competitive,” noting that “positive results for safety and mobility, as well as improved data collection for funded programs, should make SRTS programs competitive among other transportation needs.”

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Category: Infrastructure, Regulations

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