Equitable Complete Streets principles in school communities, webinar recap

Schools are natural places to encourage walking and biking. However, the share of students who walk or bike to school has declined for decades. We recently spoke with Fionnuala Quinn and Margot Ocañas about how to make areas around schools safer for getting around without a car, and help students feel confident and comfortable engaging with the planning process.

We recently partnered with Nelson\Nygaard on a webinar focused on the intersection of Complete Streets and Safe Routes to Schools. Dru van Hengel from Nelson\Nygaard described her firm’s philosophy in the area, and moderated the discussion. Van Hengel added that helping schools and students engage in Complete Streets, “provides access to information and leadership that can eliminate health and wealth disparities in all the places we work.”

Fionnuala Quinn, founder of Traffic Gardens, was the first speaker. Quinn immigrated from Ireland in adulthood and brought with her a perspective based on being able to get around in a country where adolescents and many mothers did not drive cars. She outlined her work on improving the built environment for children by educating and involving them in planning processes. Her work included helping young planners design, model, build, and experience their own Traffic Gardens (complete with ceremonial ribbon cutting) in a schoolyard in Alexandria, Virginia; and another in Washington, DC. The central theme was involving youngsters in the planning process at all stages.

Margot Ocañas runs the Safe Routes to School Program within the Los Angeles DOT. Ocañas explained the processes her office undertakes to justify, plan, and implement Safe Routes and Complete Streets measures around schools in Los Angeles. Her office’s methodology prioritized schools in areas that suffered higher rates of car crashes, where walking propensity was high, and where students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch were more concentrated.

Ocañas described how her office combines common data collection methods such as mapping with more specialized techniques like surveying schoolchildren, with help from teachers, on how they get to school. Ocañas also showed the results of pilot projects around targeted schools, and how some installations became permanent. In addition to making permanent changes in infrastructure, Ocañas also made permanent impacts on the people young and old who participated in the work through creating an understanding of what tools make streets safer, and inspiring confidence to advocate for them.

Listener questions helped expand on this topic. One asked how the presenters’ work could be applied to rural or suburban contexts where children might live 1-2 miles from their school. Ocañas said that while LA certainly is not rural, the same principles that apply in an historically auto-dominated big city can apply to smaller places too.

You can join us and our guests each month for a new topic related to creating streets and public spaces that place people, including youths, first. Our next webinar will cover protecting user data while improving accessibility for all communities on Friday, February 13, at 1:30pm eastern time.


We had so many great questions during the Q&A section of the webinar that we couldn’t get to all of them. We followed up with Margot Ocañas & Fionnuala Quinn to discuss the answers to some of the questions we missed.

What can communities do to ensure they have the data they need to replicate the prioritization process Los Angeles undertook?

Margot: Safe Routes to School (SRTS) LA school prioritization included the following data:

  • 5 year crash data (40% of the total weight)—culled from our state agency that collects crash data, focus on crashes involving a cyclists within 1/2 mile of each school, and crashes involving a pedestrian within 1/4 mile from each school. We used ped/cyclists of all ages, all hours and all days of the week.
  • Student propensity to walk/cycle (40%)—culled home addresses from students at each school and determined the % of students that live within 1/4 mile of the school.
  • Social equity proxy (10%)—percentage of the student population per school that is enrolled in the Free or Reduced Price Meal program.
  • Safe Routes to School investment (10%)—a binary yes or no, had the school received SRTS funds in the past.

Is there any gentrification [as a result of these projects] that has impacted housing nearby?

Margot: As our first set infrastructure plans are just completing construction now, to date, there has been no community concerns about gentrification.

Is the preschool curriculum for the traffic garden publicly available?

Fionnuala: The DC curriculum, which was prepared by the Early Childhood Education Program at George Mason University, is not yet available but will be in the future. The project is still wrapping up but further information should be available later this year after the research analysis is completed and the final report completed. The Planning exercise that engaged children in Alexandria, Virginia, did not include a formalized curriculum.

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