The Riverside County Department of Public Health Injury Prevention Services (IPS) developed a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program at several priority schools, which it identified by mapping youth pedestrian and bicycle injuries and deaths in the county. The mapping process “enables us to strategically map where the SRTS efforts might be beneficial,” says Gail Carlson, Program Coordinator, IPS.
Riverside County Department of Health IPS focused its efforts at eight Riverside elementary schools (a total 7,120 enrolled students) which had the highest rates of pedestrian and bicycle injuries among youth. Most of the eight schools are classified as low-income, where more than 50 percent of the students receive free and reduced meals. These schools are neighborhood schools, and the majority of students live within walking distance. Riverside County Department of Health IPS is working with the City of Riverside Public Works, Traffic Engineering, and Police Department to identify infrastructure or safety issues and to develop a plan to make it safer for kids to walk or bicycle to school. Riverside is the largest city in Riverside County with a population of 296,842.
School principals, faced with dwindling resources and increased demands on staff time, must stick to core student services and sometimes find it difficult to add to their school calendars, Carlson says. “My experience has been the majority of Principals will get on-board, if given the technical assistance and support needed, which is what our program does,” she explains.
“For the most part, parents want to walk their children to school,” she says. “International Walk to School Day has been a success in raising awareness and educating parents and students about the health, social, and environmental benefits to walking or bicycling to school.”
By forming the SRTS Coalition, IPS achieved key stakeholder support among schools, the city’s police and transportation departments and community partners. The initial challenge was identifying “champions” among the targeted elementary schools. Obtaining buy in from school administrators and keeping them motivated to sustain activities throughout the year were also key program development. PTA presidents and principals have been vital champions.
The SRTS Coalition facilitated interaction between schools and community organizations, increased capacity, and helped to create sustainable activities throughout the year. Outreach efforts at regional and local PTA conferences and meetings enabled IPS to educate PTAs about the importance of SRTS, to motivate them to participate in Walk to School Day and to establish frequent walker programs.
“What has really helped continue the momentum is the SRTS Coalition,” Carlson says.
The Riverside County Department of Public Health was awarded $491,580 in federal non-infrastructure funds from the California Department of Transportation for its education and encouragement program at eight schools. The department actually supported efforts at 15 schools thanks to contributions from community partners in the SRTS Coalition. In Cycle 2, the department was awarded $349,520 and will expand its program.
The SRTS Coalition has been a cost-effective and efficient vehicle for planning educational and encouragement events and sustaining efforts throughout the year. Through this coalition, IPS has been successful in leveraging thousands of dollars in volunteer support and in-kind contributions for SRTS projects. For example, the Western Riverside Council of Governments, through its Green Cities initiative, paid for the printing of 12,000 transportation mode surveys and provided incentives to schools that returned the surveys.
The SRTS Coalition meets every other month and is attended by school PTA presidents and parent volunteers, principals, assistant vice principals, unified school district members, school transportation managers, police and fire departments, teen volunteer groups, community organizations such as Rotary International, local walking clubs, representatives from the Mayor’s office and public works department, and other public health agencies. In 2008, IPS’s first program year, the coalition helped to coordinate the largest Walk to School Day event in the city with approximately 3,600 students and 120 volunteers participating. In 2009, more than 5,000 students participated on Walk to School Day. Most schools are large with an average of 890 students, and when 90 percent of students participate, the event literally fills neighborhood blocks with student and parent walkers.
“It really does raise awareness in the community,” Carlson says. The mayor and city council presented Walk to School Day Proclamations for both years and then participated by joining walking school buses and handing out incentive items to students. The fire department brought fire trucks to some schools, and the police department also supported the event. Public and private sector organizations donated time and resources, such as activity books, pencils, gift certificates for smoothies, and “I Walked/Biked to School” banners, which students got to sign, to add excitement to the event.
“Our partners play a significant role in the success of our program,” she says.
The SRST Coalition created a blog site for schools in the SRTS program to list their events and walking school bus routes. Carlson is assisting the city with a pedestrian assessment of many of the school intersections where the program currently is focusing education and encouragement activities.
In the spring of 2010, the SRTS Coalition will present a SRTS workshop at Longfellow Elementary, where up to 94 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch and approximately 90 percent of the students could walk to school. The IPS SRTS program is assisting the principal, who is a committed partner, in educating a newly formed PTA about SRTS education and encouragement strategies. The SRTS workshop, which will be presented by key SRTS staff such as city engineers, the police department and Carlson, will help identify the barriers to walking or bicycling and educate parents about safe pedestrian and driver behavior.
To further customize the course, the coalition also translated most of the materials to Spanish because the school’s population is predominantly Hispanic, and English is their second language.
“You need to be flexible with the schools and listen to their needs and provide them with the resources and support they need to get them involved in SRTS activities,” Carlson says.
A local Girl Scout troop worked with the city transportation engineer and Carlson to conduct a walking audit around a school. The scouts created a video presentation and took their findings to the city, where work has already begun to address some of the issues.
Carlson now serves on the Bicycle Advisory Committee for the city, which is creating a bicycle master plan. Safe Routes to School will be part of the city’s State of the City address this year. IPS in collaboration with the City of Hemet was awarded $707,850 to make infrastructure improvements along walking routes to Cawston Elementary, Rancho Vista Middle, and Tahquitz High School.
IPS will coordinate the education and encouragement activities at these schools. Hemet Unified School District has some of the highest rates of pedestrian and bicycle injuries and fatalities among children in the county,” Carlson says.
Program Coordinator II