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Walkability and Safe Routes to School

June 2, 2014

In 2011, like thousands of other U.S. schools, Fairfield Senior High School in suburban Cincinnati was facing a budget crisis. In response, among other cutbacks, the school board voted in March to eliminate school bus services for high school students for the 2011-2012 academic year, a move that would save the district $300,000 a year. This wasn’t the first time the district’s school board felt forced to address funding shortfalls by eliminating bus services. The last time busing was eliminated--for three months in 2004--the Fairfield police sent a clear message to students: Don’t even think about walking to school.

Built in 1997, Fairfield Senior High is set among busy, multilane roads, and there are no sidewalks leading up to the school. Traffic congestion around the school is a major issue in the community--and in 2004 police where terrified at the prospect of kids trying to navigate a hostile environment on foot or on bikes. In the six years since, the route to school has not become any less hazardous. There are still no sidewalks or pedestrian overpasses that make it possible to safely reach the school on foot. In 2011, one parent wrote this on the Fairfield superintendent’s blog in the wake of the March announcement: “We live close enough to the high school that my daughter could conceivably walk home from school, but where should she walk? The street? Sidewalks should have been included when the new high school was planned years ago. Now you are going to have hundreds of children walking down the street and around the school with no sidewalks on which to walk. Not to mention that she would have to cross Route 4 to get home.”

Explains Randy Oppenheimer, who handles community relations for the Fairfield school district, “The high school was built 14 years ago. Walkability was not viewed as a priority.” But, today, walkability is viewed as a priority--in part, because Fairview High School is not an isolated example. Millions of the nation’s elementary, middle, and high school students can’t walk or bike to school. Others simply don’t. Today, the vast majority of kids are driven to school--either by bus or by private vehicle. And, in light of rising health and environmental concerns, reversing this pattern has become a national priority.

The dramatic decline in walking and biking to school among U.S. children has been widely documented, and there’s near-universal agreement that it’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Based on federal transportation surveys, the percentage of children ages 5 to 18 who walked or biked to school declined from 47 percent in 1969 to 16 percent in 2001. A root cause has been the growth of sprawling suburbs--many of which are simply unwalkable--and the growing dependence on the automobile. The distance between home and school has become an issue. Over the past 50 years, schools have become bigger and been located farther from the families they serve. By 1969 only 34 percent of children ages 5 to 18 lived within one mile of their school, and by 2001 only 21 percent lived within a mile of school. At some point, even kids who lived within a mile of their schools stopped walking and biking to and from school. Today, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), among five to fourteen-year-olds who live within a mile of school, only 38 percent usually walk or bike--compared to nearly 90 percent in 1969. The consequences of these trends have been significant.

Among them are the following:

  • Rates of obesity and physical inactivity among kids have risen to the point where 30 percent of our kids are overweight or obese, and one-third of middle and high schoolers are sedentary. It’s an issue that moved to the forefront of the national agenda when First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move initiative in February 9, 2010 to address what she labeled “the epidemic of childhood obesity.” In her remarks at the Let’s Move launch, she cited the fact that childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades and pointed to the troubling links between inactivity and obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even Type II diabetes in children.
  • The environmental and economic impacts of driving and busing kids to school are not insignificant. The rise in rush hour traffic associated with school trips has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a key contributor to air quality problems in a number of cities. And the rising cost of busing students--even those who live within walking distance of schools--has become a budgetary issue facing school boards around the country.

Addressing the Issue

These concerns moved to the forefront of the national agenda at the turn of the millennium. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) raised public awareness of the problem with the release of Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School in 2000, and the release of a second edition in 2002, as new data continued to emerge. The reports documented the dramatic decline in walking and biking to school and raised serious questions about land use policy, school siting decisions, and related infrastructure issues that served as barriers to walkability. (See related story, Issues in Public Education, “School Building and Siting”). In the wake of the NTHP reports, the EPA conducted the first empirical study linking school transportation to high auto emissions. And, in August of 2005, with momentum building for the creation of more walkable and bikable school environments, Congress passed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, establishing a federal grant program called Safe Routes to School that provided $612 million in funding for five years to help communities create more walkable school environments. The National Center for Safe Routes to School is funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration and is maintained by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. It has grown into a nationwide organization of state and local coordinators who are implementing the program in all 50 states and Washington, DC, as well as a 20-state network of Safe Routes to School advocates focused on policy change. Today, state transportation departments, biking and walking advocacy groups, planners, engineers, the EPA, the CDC, community groups around the country, and private funders are working to reverse the trend. In combination, these forces are making a tremendous impact on reshaping policies, educating families, and promoting safer, more walkable environments.

Not surprisingly, advocates for improving school walkability, including the National Center for Safe Routes to School (SRTS), are addressing the issue on multiple fronts, focusing on the needs of individual communities and helping to change misguided policies at the state and local levels. They’re employing a variety of strategies from educating kids on how to walk and bike safely to spearheading infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks, walking paths, and bike trail trails to forging alliances with government agencies and advocates for walking and biking throughout the country.

To get a sense of the level of activity, consider the example of Ohio. SRTS grant funding flows from the Department of Transportation (DOT), and Julie Walcoff, the state’s SRTS program manager, is based at the Ohio DOT. Through Walcoff and a network of local coordinators, SRTS reaches out to Ohio’s elementary and middle schools to let them know that funding is available for education, engineering, and infrastructure programs to make walking and biking safer, and for so-called “encouragement” programs to promote walking and biking to school. Then it’s up to the schools and communities to apply for the grants. “We’re assisting communities in what they think is important,” says Walcoff. “So if a community’s priority is to make it safer for their kids to walk and bike to school, they come to us, and we assist them.” Toward that end, the Ohio DOT distributed $11 million in 2010 and $11.6 million in 2011 to fund local SRTS projects. Grants went for a range of infrastructure and engineering projects, including walking paths, traffic signals, pavement markings, bike trails, curb extensions, and countdown devices for traffic signals--which give pedestrians an indication of when a traffic light is going to change. The Ohio DOT also awarded SRTS grants for safety education programs and programs that promote and encourage biking and walking to school--such as newsletters and outreach.

Focusing in on the Problem

In 2010, SRTS released a comprehensive study of student travel patterns, which provides new insights into the barriers to walking to school and gives SRTS baseline data for evaluating the ultimate impact of its programs. By combining surveys of more than 130,000 parents with travel data recorded for students from more than 34,000 classrooms in 1,308 elementary and middle schools around the United States, the survey yielded the following:

  • The distance between home and school is a major barrier to walkability. Fully 34 percent of the families surveyed lived two or more miles from school. Cars and buses were by far the most common mode of transportation among all parents surveyed--one or the other was used 82 percent of families in the morning and 78 percent in the afternoon.
  • Traffic safety is a major problem. Some parents don’t allow their children to walk to school because walking is just too dangerous--not because of concerns about crime, which registers as a minor issue, but because the distance is too great or because of road conditions--such as high traffic speeds, the lack of safe crossings, and traffic volumes. Says the report, “The predominant reason kids aren’t walking to school is because they do not live in walkable communities.”
  • Those parents who allow their kids to walk to school do so because the school is close by, the intersections and crossings are safe, the weather is accommodating, and because there are sidewalks and pathways to carry them.

Today, biking and public transportation are the least common ways of getting to school, and again, family vehicles and school buses are the most common. Based on the 2009 NHTS survey, 40 percent of elementary and middle-schoolers ride the bus--up slightly from 38 percent in 1969--and 44 percent routinely ride in a family car or van--up from 12 percent in 1969. A visit to The National Centerfor Safe Routes To School website yields an abundance of case studies from communities around the country. Dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that real change is in the making.

Take the case of Pickerington, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, and the surrounding Violet Township. The community has addressed a number of underlying school travel problems on its own. For example, Harmon Middle School sits on Harmon Road, which was once a two-lane country road with no sidewalks. A few years ago, the township funded the expansion of Harmon Road to three lanes and added sidewalks on both sides. Today, the kids at the Harmon Middle School are not only able to walk to school but to bike--which they do by the hundreds. A school crossing guard ensures safe passage across Harmon for both walkers and bikers.

Like many neighborhoods developed around the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, Pickerington has two problems: curvilinear streets and cul-de-sacs. In the neighborhoods that serve two local elementary schools--Fairfield Elementary and Pickerington Elementary--even kids who live within a mile of the schools can’t walk or bike because of the way the communities were originally designed. Part of the neighborhood serving Fairfield Elementary--the cul-de-sacs developed before the mid-eighties--has no sidewalks at all. And in neighborhoods serving Pickerington Elementary that do have sidewalks, the cul-de-sacs circle around and link to one another, but they don’t connect directly to the main road or to the school. Those are problems that SRTS can address. Says Ira Weiss, a member of the SRTS committee for Pickerington and Violet Township, “At Pickerington Elementary when we looked at the road connections, we said, these kids are two houses away from the school, but they can’t get there. Because they’re in the middle of a cul-de-sac, they have to walk all the way around to the main street. It turns a 200-foot walk into a two-mile walk. We said, we’re going to put a trail in there, so they can walk from the cul-de-sac directly to the school.”

Pickerington’s 17-member SRTS committee has been busy. Its members include representatives of all the school district’s elementary, middle, and junior high schools, as well as the school transportation coordinator, a representative of the police department, the assistant to the superintendent of schools, a former member of the department of parks and recreation, and assorted community leaders, including Peggy Portier, a local go-getter and member of the county historical society, and Ira Weiss, who, among other things, is past president of both the County Planning Commission and an active regional biking group, Consider Biking. They’re getting things done. Among other SRTS grants, they applied for--and received--a noninfrastructure grant that included bike helmets for all the middle schoolers in the entire district. “That’s more than 2,000 bike helmets,” says Weiss. More importantly, they’ve got a plan.

Before a school district can get an SRTS grant, it must develop a School Travel Plan. “The travel plan looks at what the current conditions are, what the barriers are, and how to mitigate those barriers,” says Weiss. The committee then sets its priorities based on that analysis, aiming primarily at improving walkability for kids who live within a mile of school. In 2008, they received funds for creating walking paths and sidewalks to serve both Fairfield and Pickerington students, and in the spring of 2011, construction gets under way. Says Weiss, “Right now at Pickerington Elementary students are not allowed to walk to school. But in a couple of years all the infrastructure will be in place. Then it’s up to the principal.”

Enthusiasm is building community wide. “You can see the excitement by going to the school board meetings--people want to see these things happen,” says Weiss. “They’re realizing that if we put in a sidewalk, it’s not just for the kids. It’s for everybody who’s old enough that their mothers will let them walk to school on up to senior citizens.” So the program has the potential for increasing walking and biking not just to schools but also to local services, retail stores, and restaurants.

Why It Makes a Difference

The benefits of creating walkable environments are clear. Chief among them are the health benefits. But there are other compelling reasons to address the issue. Transportation makes up a rising share of U.S. family budgets--up from 10 percent in 1935 to almost 20 percent today, according to a 2003 report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project. And periodic spikes in gas prices further exacerbate the impact of these costs. Nationwide, in the 25 years from 1978 to 2003, the cost to school districts of transporting students doubled. State experiences vary. The following examples are cited in the 2010 Report Helping Johnny Walk to School: Policy Recommendations for Removing Barriers to Community-Centered Schools.

  • In Maine, during the 20-year period from 1975 to 1995, the cost of busing the state’s students to school increased by more than 600 percent--from $8.7 million to more than $54 million--even though the number of students in the Maine school system actually declined.
  • In Maryland, the cost of busing students more than doubled between 1992 and 2006.
  • In Illinois, from 2004 to 2009, “reimbursements for student transportation increased 307.7 percent--which works out to an approximate annual increase of $32.5 million.”

Finally, walkability improves neighborhoods and strengthens communities, and has been linked to improved property values. According to Walking the Walk, a report by CEOs for Cities, “Homes located in more walkable neighborhoods… command a price premium over otherwise similar homes in less walkable areas.” A 2009 CEO for Cities study looked at 90,000 recent home sales in 15 markets, and found that “a one point increase in Walk Score was associated with between a $500 and $3,000 increase in home values.” Says Ira Weiss of SRTS committee in Pickerington, Ohio, “I can’t stress enough, the more walkable and bikeable a community is, the more sellable it is.”

 
Web Resources

National Center for Safe Routes to School (SRTS)1
SRTS provides a wealth of information and resources on implementing a SRTS program including information on training and funding for the national program and an interactive map of SRTS programs throughout the United States. Some valuable SRTS links include the following:

Safe Routes to School Toolkit2
This 88-page toolkit produced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Marin County Bicycle Coalition’s Safe Routes to School project includes extensive resources for educators and organizers to promote walking and biking to schools. The toolkit includes mapping the routes to school, activities and outreach, classroom lessons, sample Safe Routes to School forms, press releases, and posters.

State Safe Routes to School Contacts3
To find your state Safe Routes to School contact and website, just follow this link and click on the map.

Safe Routes to School State Network Project4
Leaders from states around the country are working with SRTS to implement pedestrian- and bike-friendly policies. Follow this link to find network contacts.

Partnership for a Walkable America5
The website for this national coalition that is working to promote walkability and that founded International Walk to School day provides links to the Walk to School website and a downloadable checklist that you can use to determine the walkability of your community or neighborhood.

National Complete Streets Coalition6
A coalition supporting a complete-streets policy that promotes the design and operation of streets that serve all users--including bicyclists, public transportation users, pedestrians of all ages, and people with disabilities.

Walkscore7
Calculate the walkability score for any neighborhood and check out the most walkable neighborhoods in the 40 largest U.S. cities, based on the site’s 2008 rankings.

1 www.saferoutesinfo.org/
2 www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/bike/Safe-Routes-2002/index.html
3 www.saferoutesinfo.org/contacts/index.cfm
4 www.saferoutespartnership.org/about/4058#organizers
5 www.walkableamerica.org/
6 www.completestreets.org/
7 www.walkscore.com/

See related article in REALTORS® Making a Difference, “Organize a Walk/Bike to School.”
See related article in Issues in Public Education, “School Building and Siting.”