Safe Routes to School needs more than funding to be successful

Of all the negative impacts of car-centric development over the last century, few are more stark or disheartening than the decline in walking and bicycling for school-age children. The share of kids getting to school with their own two feet has dropped an incredible amount over the past forty years, from 48% in 1969 to roughly 12% today. Over that same time period, childhood obesity and children driven to school in a private automobile have each increased four-fold, and their freedom to explore the cities they live in has been sharply curtailed.

In response to these troubling statistics the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program began in 1997 and a national program was established by the U.S. Congress in 2005. The primary goal of SRTS, as stated on their website, has been to "improve safety on walking and bicycling routes to school and to encourage children and families to travel between home and school using these modes." There's evidence that they've had some success, including one study that showed California schools receiving infrastructure improvements were able to increase biking and walking rates by 20 to 200 percent and another showing a decrease in collision rates by up to 49%.

The benefits aren't limited to safety and physical activity, either. Cars driving kids to school are estimated to account for 10-14% of morning traffic. Air pollution is often markedly higher in school zones and contributes to other health problems, like asthma, and increases atmospheric carbon concentrations. Kids who walk or bike to school have measurably better concentration than kids who are driven. As a nation we spend $21.5 billion a year busing students, which works out to $854 per student. By comparison, many schools in Japan ban car drop-offs and limit busing, choosing to instead spend that money on crossing guards and pedestrian improvements. As a result, 80% of children age 6 to 12 walk to school there (and they do it without adult chaperones, too).

Last year, as part of its MAP-21 transportation package, Congress effectively reduced Safe Routes to School funding by combining it with several other walk/bike programs and reducing total funding by 30%. These cuts will inevitably lead to smaller gains in children's safety and physical health, and their wrongheadedness is virtually beyond dispute. Instead of harping on that point, which has already been done effectively elsewhere, I'd like to focus on what can be done in lieu of adequate funding. Because even though more is needed, money alone won't get us back to where we want to be. The question we need to ask is: How can we leverage the people power of schools and communities, not money and infrastructure, to get more kids walking and biking to school, and doing so safely?

Loyal Heights Elementary principal Wayne Floyd leading a bike train, photo by  Clint Loper .

Loyal Heights Elementary principal Wayne Floyd leading a bike train, photo by Clint Loper.

Seattle, like many other cities, has been experiencing something of a revolution in how our children get to school over the past few years, and Seattle Bike Blog has done a great job of documenting the change: on Bike to School day this year one elementary school had hundreds of students biking to school as well as a VIP appearance by the district superintendent; several schools in the Ballard neighborhood are promoting biking and walking to work, and even some principals are getting involved; and a new organization called Walk.Bike.Schools formed just last year to share ideas about how to increase active transportation to and from schools.

61% of students less than 1 mile away are driven to school!

61% of students less than 1 mile away are driven to school!

All of these programs are great news and an encouraging sign of the trajectory of the movement, but at this point they're much more likely to be big once-a-month events than daily, routine commutes. How are kids getting to school the other 95% of the time? Too often, the answer is still "cars and buses."

Given the number of students arriving at school in cars, there are clearly plenty of parents with time in the mornings, many of them probably stay-at-home moms or dads. They could be taking some extra time to lead biking and/or walking trains every morning, gathering students as they make their way to school with their own children, but they're not. With the full disclosure that I'm not a parent and can't pretend to know exactly what their concerns might be, I think much of it comes down to two related issues: potential parent leaders may not want to take responsibility for the safety of kids they don't know, and other parents may not be comfortable leaving their kids in the care of someone they don't know well, even for a 15-minute walk.

The problem here, if it is indeed a part of the problem, is ultimately a lack of community. Most people would never harm a child, but when people don't know the members of their community they can't always trust them by default. It may be that school districts or another credible institution can step in to bridge the gap and provide a framework for continued growth.

Schools, teachers, and administrators are extremely well-respected and trusted in America, and they could function as intermediaries in this impasse. (They could also lead these trips themselves, though they shouldn't be obligated or expected to do so.) They're in a position to lend credibility to potential parent leaders interested in running bike or walking trains on a regular basis, as well as to allay the concerns of hesitant parents. Bestowing credibility upon parent leaders could take the form of something simple and informal, like a brief interview or background check, or could be a more involved "licensing"-like process with classes and meetings with other parents and children. Though this might be a bit over-the-top in terms of burdening the parents interested in participating, I would argue that if it's what's necessary to get kids walking and biking to school every day, it's worth the trouble. As familiarity with the program and a proven track record of safety was established, the need for such formalized measures would be likely to fade.

There's also room for technology in solving this problem. Lenore Skenazy, interviewed last year by Salon, captured my thoughts pretty well:

So what’s the antidote? Skenazy has thought about setting up a website, Find a Free-Range Friend, “like a dating site,” she says. “You put in your kid’s age and ZIP Code so you can find another parent and say, ‘OK, you believe in it and I believe in it. Let’s send them to the park together, or they can walk to school.’”

A better analogy might be something like Lyft, the ride-sharing business where people can use their cars as taxis and connect with people who need rides via a convenient smartphone app. In that same spirit, parents walking or biking to school with their kids could broadcast their trip, inviting other parents to contact them if they'd like their kids picked up on the way, free of charge!

As a last note, the emotional pull of how little freedom kids have nowadays, and their utter dependence on adults for transportation, is especially powerful for me. With that in mind, I'll leave you with this excellent Streetfilms production on how much things have changed over the past half-century: