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What is Safe Routes to School?

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a national and international movement to create safe, convenient and healthy opportunities for children to walk and bicycle to school.

The program encourages children to walk and bicycle to school, helping to reverse an alarming decrease in students’ physical activity and an associated increase in childhood obesity. By getting more children to walk and bicycle to school, communities are also reducing fuel consumption, alleviating traffic congestion, and improving air quality. SRTS programs are built on collaborative partnerships among many stakeholders, including educators, parents, students, elected officials, engineers, city planners, business and community leaders, health officials, and bicycle and pedestrian advocates.


Why Safe Routes to School?

Safe Routes to School became part of the national conversation in the early 2000s amidst concerns that, within the span of a single generation, fewer children were walking and bicycling to school at the same time that childhood obesity and related diseases such as diabetes were on the rise.

The primary goal of the Safe Routes to School program is to get more children bicycling and walking to schools safely on an everyday basis. SRTS programs benefit schools and communities by improving health and fitness, providing traffic relief, reducing air pollution, and expanding local infrastructure.

Increase childhood activity and improve health. In 1969, about half of all children in the nation walked or bicycled to school, including approximately 87 percent of children who lived within 1 mile of their school. 1 Today, fewer than 15 percent of school children walk or bicycle to school. 2

This statistic reflects in part how communities have changed over the past half century to become more auto-oriented. Across the nation, people are driving more and walking less, which is contributing to more Americans becoming obese or overweight.

Simply stated, most children today do not get enough physical activity, and it's showing in their health. Childhood obesity rates have soared over the past 40 years with more than 33 percent of children and adolescents now considered overweight or obese or at risk of becoming so. 3 The epidemic is so great that it is regularly cited that today's generation of children may be the first in more than 200 years to live less healthy and have a shorter livespan than their parents. 4

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children and adolescents participate in 60 minutes of structured and informal physical activity a day. Walking or bicycling to school helps children move closer to that goal. Consider that walking one 1 mile to and from school each day provides two-thirds of the recommended 60 minutes of daily activity. In fact, children who walk to school start out on the right foot because they show higher levels of physical activity throughout the entire day. 5

Safe Routes to School activities teach children why physical activity is important and why walking or biking to school can make a difference in their lives. SRTS projects strive to make it safer for children to walk and bicycle to school, and this can lead to increased physical activity and ultimately healthier kids.

Reduce traffic and pollution and improve communities. As much as 20 to 30 percent of morning traffic is generated by parents driving their children to schools. 6 While it's true that trends in housing patterns may result in people living farther away from schools, that's not the only reason parents drive their children to school each morning. In actuality, private vehicles account for half of the school trips that are between a quarter and a half mile7, a distance that could easily be traversed on foot or by bike.

More cars on the road mean increased air pollution, which affects the community's overall health and well-being. Consider that one-third of schools in the United States are in "air pollution" danger zones. 8 Children exposed to air pollution are more likely to have asthma, lung deficits, and a higher risk of heart and lung problems than adults. 9

If children are going to walk and bicycle to school, they need safe routes. Pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be struck by a vehicle in locations without sidewalks. 10 That's why it is critical that pedestrian-friendly infrastructure be in place around a school, that crosswalks and crossing guards ensure safe intersections, and that road signs alert motorists to watch for pedestrians and cyclists. The bottom line is if students and their parents don't feel safe while walking and bicycling to school, they're not going to do it, no matter how much they believe in the health benefits.

Creating safe routes to school will ultimately provide an improved local infrastructure network. Beyond giving students safer routes for traveling to and from school, the addition of walking and biking paths also provides residents with more choices for traveling throughout their community, whether it's by foot, by bicycle, or by vehicle. The end result is a more livable, attractive, and desirable community for all its citizens.

By improving pedestrian and bicycle routes to its schools, a community is encouraging students to walk and bicycle to school, thus increasing their activity and helping to improve children's health. Likewise, a municipality that makes safe, sustainable pedestrian and bicycle routes an integral part of its overall infrastructure plan is reducing traffic congestion, lessening air pollution, and creating a more desirable community in which residents have a variety of ways to get around.

While walking and bicycling to school will not single-handedly stem the growing obesity epidemic or reduce greenhouse emissions, it will get children moving again, and that is a step in the right direction.

Source: Safe Routes to School National Partnership


1 Federal Highway Administration, 1972

2 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2003

3 Journal of the American Medical Association, 2006

4 New England Journal of Medicine

5 American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2003

6 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

7 Federal Highway Administration, 2008

8 Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 2008

9 Epidemiology, 2005, and The Lancet, 2007

10 U.S. Department of Transportation, 1987


What is the history of Safe Routes to School?

The term "Safe Routes to School" was first coined in Denmark in the 1970s. Since that time, Safe Routes to School has spread throughout Europe and to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

In America, the first Safe Routes to School program occurred in the Bronx in 1997. Three years later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued funding for Safe Routes to School pilot programs in Marin County, Calif., and Arlington, Mass. Within a year of the launch of these programs, grassroots Safe Routes to School efforts were springing up throughout the United States.

In 2005, the U.S. Congress approved $612 million in funding for SRTS programs to be implemented in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Across the nation, this federal funding is used to construct new or enhanced bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure around schools and to launch SRTS education, promotion, and enforcement campaigns in elementary and middle schools.

This funding ended on June 30, 2012, and was replaced by the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) bill. The new legislation provides funding for Safe Routes to School and similar activities, but this funding now competes with other project categories, including rails to trails, scenic overlooks, historic preservation, and other general bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Source: Safe Routes to School National Partnership


What is the difference between noninfrastructure and infrastructure SRTS projects?

Noninfrastructure — These activities do not involve physical improvements to the transportation structures but instead serve to increase awareness and encourage safe use of existing or future facilities. Specifically, noninfrastructure support involves development, implementation or expansion of programs that educate, encourage, enforce and evaluate safe routes to school.

Infrastructure — These projects involve physical additions or improvement of existing transportation facilities in and around a school. Traditionally, such improvements include sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, signs and signals, although smaller improvements such as bike racks or bike lockers will qualify too.


What are the Five Es of Safe Routes to School?

The SRTS program is built around the "Five Es of Safe Routes to School" — education, encouragement, enforcement, evaluation and engineering. This comprehensive approach enables communities to establish, maintain and continue to increase safe walking and bicycling opportunities to school by addressing students, parents, teachers, police and motorists.

Education — This aspect of SRTS involves teaching students that walking and bicycling are healthy, fun and sustainable transportation choices. As part of the education component, schools usually focus on stressing the many benefits of walking and bicycling: increasing physical activity, improving health, reducing fuel consumption, and improving air quality. Students are also taught how to safely travel by foot or bicycle to and from school. In addition, motorists might be educated about the rules of the road as they relate to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Encouragement — Events, activities and lessons are used to promote walking and bicycling. This component is especially helpful in areas where safe walking and bicycling opportunities exist but students need motivation and leadership to take advantage of them. In communities where walking conditions are considered unsafe, encouragement should not begin until the engineering component has been addressed, and safer routes can be established. Encouragement efforts often dovetail with education to get students moving and to build support for SRTS from the community.

Enforcement — In this component, activities seek to encourage safety and to ensure that pedestrians, cyclists and motorists abide by the rules of the road. Enforcement is essential for ensuring the safety of students especially as walking and bicycling to school gain popularity. When planning enforcement efforts, schools should partner with local police departments.

Evaluation — Successful SRTS programs evaluate the progression of habits and attitudes of students and parents toward walking and bicycling. Schools are encouraged to use student / parent evaluation materials to track the number of children walking or bicycling to school and to reveal why parents do not allow their children to walk to school and what could prompt a shift in behavior.

By conducting evaluations at both the start and the conclusion of a school year during which an SRTS push was made, a school may be able to determine if SRTS activities held throughout the school year had any effect on students' walking and bicycling habits and parents' attitudes toward having their children walk or bicycle to school. Another important component of evaluation is reviewing "crash data" available from PennDOT to map where collisions are occurring and to use this information to try to ensure safer routes to school.

Evaluation provides useful data as to the scope and the success of a Safe Routes to School program; this data may also help to ensure that federal SRTS funding is available in future transportation bills.

Engineering — Engineering improvements to infrastructure is a critical component of the SRTS approach. Successful SRTS programs often begin with a walkability audit, which provides a thorough assessment of the barriers that keep children from walking and bicycling to school. This assessment will help to establish a list of recommended improvements, from short-term suggestions such as painting crosswalks, clearing overhanging tree limbs and brush, or altering traffic light timing to long-term recommendations such as installing sidewalks or reconstructing intersections. Engineering also includes the planning and implementation of actual improvements to the local infrastructure to make it safer for school children to walk and bicycle.


SRTS Statistics

Within the span of one generation, the percentage of children walking or bicycling to school has dropped precipitously, from approximately 50 percent in 1969 to just 15 percent in 2001.