Using the Research to Make a Strong Case for Safe Routes to School

This guest blog post was written by our research advisor, Christina Galardi.

In advocating for Safe Routes to School programs in your area, you might face two major questions from school administrators, local planners, or political leaders:

  1. Will Safe Routes to School really increase students’ rates of walking and biking to school?
  2. Is Safe Routes to School worth the investment?

Two rigorous research studies published in the past year provide evidence for the health and economic benefits of Safe Routes to School to support your response.

Schools have seen increases in walking and biking after implementing Safe Routes to School programs.

In a recent study of 801 schools across Florida, Oregon, Texas, and DC from 2007-2012, schools that implemented Safe Routes to School programs saw a 31% relative increase in rates of active transportation over the five-year time span. Rates of walking and bicycling increased with each additional year of participation, even after controlling for different characteristics between neighborhoods and schools.

Furthermore, engineering improvements specifically were associated with an 18% relative increase in walking and biking, and education and encouragement programs were associated with a 25% relative increase over the five-year span.

Why is this study important? Showing a cause-effect relationship between Safe Routes to School and walking and biking rates provides the strongest evidence for its impact, but it is often difficult to demonstrate because it requires data collected 1) over time, to show the change in walking and biking before and after implementation and 2) across both schools with and without Safe Routes to School, to show that Safe Routes to School was the key factor resulting in the change. This study addresses both of these concerns.

Safe Routes to School can have broad economic benefits for schools, families, and society.

Another study looks broadly at potential for decreased public costs through reduced busing for students, private costs through less vehicle operation and time for parents, and external costs through lowered congestion and air quality. The study estimated that school transportation expenses using existing public and private modes are $30 billion nationwide, not including air quality and congestion impacts. In a simulation with four different schools using varied enrollment and busing and private transportation scenarios, the study estimates annual cost savings per student of $50-140 and net total value to schools of $206,000 to $330,000 over 10 years.

Furthermore, this article described case studies from school districts in New Jersey, Missouri, Washington, and Texas implementing Safe Routes to School programs that saved from $49,000 to $240,000 as a result of more efficient busing from reduced school transportation needs.

Both of these studies and more strong examples were published in a research review by Active Living Research, “Impact of Safe Routes to School Programs on Walking and Biking.” The key takeaways from the literature included:

  • Actively commuting to and from school could improve mental and physical health.
  • Safe Routes to School has increased the number of students who walk or bike to and from school.
  • Unsafe routes make it harder for students to walk or bike to and from school, but Safe Routes to School has made it safer for students to walk or bike to or from school.
  • Safe Routes to School can lower health care and transportation costs for school districts and families. 

Check out the review for the research evidence to support these conclusions, and use this research to pursue funding and make the case for the important contributions of Safe Routes to School to health, safety, and community development.

McDonald, N. (2015). Impact of Safe Routes to School Programs on Walking and Biking. Active Living Research: San Diego, CA. Routes to School_May2015.pdf

McDonald, N.C., Steiner, R.L., Lee, C., Smith, T.R., Zhu, X., & Yang, Y. (2014). Impact of the Safe Routes to School Program on Walking and Biking. Journal of the American Planning Association 80(2), 153-167.

McDonald, N.C., Steiner, R.L., Palmer, W.M., Bullock, A.N., Sisiopiku, V.P., & Lytle, B.F. (2014). Costs of school transportation: quantifying the fiscal impacts of encouraging walking and bicycling for school travel. Transportation.