Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School are Natural Partners

Today’s post comes from Margo Pedroso, Deputy Director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

From 1969 to 2001, the percentage of students walking and bicycling to school in the United States has declined dramatically from 41 percent to 13 percent. The majority of these active and healthy trips have been replaced by parents driving their children to school—resulting in traffic congestion and safety issues around schools, and less physical activity for children.

The Safe Routes to School National Partnership has over 400 partner organizations, including the National Complete Streets Coalition. Together, we are working to advocate for and to strengthen the practice of safely walking and bicycling to and from schools across the country. To do this, we’re working with local, state, and national partners to create policy and infrastructure changes to improve safety and access to schools.

Before we can reverse the downward trend in walking and bicycling, it’s important to understand why there have been such dramatic changes in our children get to school. When you listen to parents and researchers, key reasons that emerge relate to distance to school and safety concerns. Distance must be addressed by locating schools closer to the neighborhoods of the students they serve. But, even for children who live within a mile of school, only half currently walk or bicycle to school. Parents are choosing to drive children who live close to school because of safety concerns about the amount of traffic on the roads, the speed of traffic, lack of sidewalks and crosswalks, and concerns about crime.

In essence, many parents are choosing to drive their children because their neighborhoods have incomplete streets: streets lacking essential safety features for pedestrians and bicyclists, and where speed and volume of cars has been the main priority in designing the streets.

That’s where the federal Safe Routes to School program, which was created by the 2005 SAFETEA-LU federal transportation bill, comes in. Through Safe Routes to School, state Departments of Transportation have provided $600 million from fiscal years 2005 to 2009 to make it safer for more children to walk and bicycle to school. Through Safe Routes to School funding, communities are conducting bicycle and pedestrian safety education, enforcing speed limits and traffic rules, holding promotional events to encourage more children to walk and bicycle, and are making engineering improvements around schools.

The Safe Routes to School National Partnership recently issued a new report, Safe Routes to School: Putting Traffic Safety First (.pdf), to explore the safety benefits from Safe Routes to School interventions and to highlight local success stories. Springfield, Missouri has slowed driver speeds and increased usage of crosswalks by adding flashing school zone speed limit signage, repainting crosswalks, and reducing speed limits. Thanks to a comprehensive child pedestrian safety program and infrastructure improvements around schools, Miami-Dade County has experienced a 43 percent decrease in the number of children struck by cars. The program is working. And, Safe Routes to School benefits the whole community: one study found that 65 million Americans in urban areas live within a half-mile of a school, demonstrating how Safe Routes to School improvements have a broad benefit for people of all ages.

Unfortunately, the demand for Safe Routes to School funding exceeds what is available. The National Safe Routes to School Task Force concluded that the federal Safe Routes to School funding will only serve about 7.5 percent of schools in the nation, and even for those schools, most will have additional needs not covered through the federal funding. This is why it’s critical that local and state agencies throughout the national also adopt and implement complete streets policies – to design, build and retrofit our roads for all users. Applying Complete Streets design principles around and on routes to schools will result in neighborhoods where parents and children feel safe while walking and bicycling to school—without having to retrofit streets using limited Safe Routes to School funds.

Our state Safe Routes to School networks, which are now operating in 20 states, often select complete streets policies as a primary focus of their efforts to create a supportive policy environment for walking and bicycling to school. Networks in California, Louisiana and New York have had successes with Complete Streets policies (.pdf) in the past few years and we look forward to expanding this work in 2010 and 2011.

These synergies are why the Safe Routes to School National Partnership strongly supports Complete Streets, and is a member of the National Complete Streets Coalition.

Complete Streets