2002 Summary of Safe Routes to School Programs in the United States

Introduction Children's lives have altered dramatically over the last few decades. One of the most startling changes is how little independence and mobility they now have compared to the generations who grew up before them. Not so long ago, a vast majority of kids routinely roamed their neighborhoods on foot or bicycle, taking the first steps toward independence.

Today, a new generation of moms and dads chauffeur their kids to nearly all their activities, fearing for their children's safety on streets due to perceived dangers from both crime and traffic. Researchers estimate while more than two-thirds of all children walked or biked to school as little as thirty years ago, that number has now plummeted to less than ten percent. Yet a new movement is emerging that is focusing on getting kids back on their feet and back on their bikes. Neighborhood groups, traffic engineers and local officials are working together to make streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists along school routes, while encouraging both parents and their kids to take advantage of the many benefits of getting around on foot or by bike.

With new interest from transportation professionals, public health advocates, neighborhood improvement groups and local elected officials, communities all across the United States are discovering the many benefits of providing "Safe Routes to School." In order to encourage more children to walk or bike, parents need to trust that it is both safe and convenient from a variety of perspectives. A concern among some parents is the threat of violence as well as child abduction. While statistics tell us that abductions are an extremely infrequent occurrence, many parents indeed have legitimate concerns about crime, and violence prevention is an important component of Safe Routes to School programs in many areas. But the greatest danger for many children walking or biking to school comes from traffic on neighborhood roads and streets. Parents often cite the fear of traffic as one of their top concerns in allowing their kids to walk or bike to school. They note the importance of stronger education programs for both motorists and children, better enforcement of traffic laws, and projects and programs to help slow down the speed of residential traffic. Indeed, it is exactly this type of comprehensive approach to traffic safety problems that has been shown to be most effective in creating safer streets and promoting increased walking and bicycling among Americans of all ages. The Types of Safe Routes Programs The desire to reduce pedestrian injuries, restore childhood mobility, improve basic health, and reduce automobile traffic near schools have inspired a wide variety of "Safe Routes to School" programs across the United States. Some Safe Routes to School projects have existed under other names for decades, and been recently recast as Safe Routes to School. Others are new to this country. This paper includes details and contact information for many of these programs.

There are many different components involved in the creation of a safe routes to school program, but generally they can be grouped under these four broad approaches:

  • The Traffic Calming Model
  • The Funding Model
  • The Encouragement Model
  • The Enforcement Model

Many programs mix aspects of these models, and the different models can also co-exist in a single state or community. This discussion highlights the differences between the models in order to help proponents of Safe Routes think methodically about what they are doing, and why they are doing it. This means distinguishing between Ends and Means - or Goals and Methods. For instance, traffic calming is a means to an end - reducing child crashes around schools, and encouraging cycling and walking. It is not an end in itself.

Authoring Organization: 
Transportation Alternatives
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