Write This Way: School Policy Supporting Active Transportation and Physical Activity


To increase physical activity opportunities available through schools over the long term, we need to put it in writing – through policy.

Several of our recent blog posts have covered federal policy and funding changes that might affect biking, walking, and Safe Routes to School programs, particularly in regards to the Transportation Alternatives Program. Even though federal dollars are critical for school-based walking and bicycling programs, ensuring commitment at the state, district and school levels provides a much greater level of sustainability.

So, what is the state of our policies for physical activity?  The 2008 National Physical Activity Plan encouraged Safe Routes to Schools programs at national, state, county, and local levels.  And yet, the National Research Council reported in 2013 that wellness policies include language promoting Safe Routes to School in fewer than 10% of school districts nationwide.  Another national survey – the CDC’s School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS) – provides additional insight into the state of physical activity policy.  SHPPS assesses school health policies at the state, district, school, and classroom level, with state-level information collected from education and health departments.

The 2012 SHPPS focused on state- and district-level information. Results showed:

  • 90% of states had adopted national or state health education standards, and 74% had standards based on 2007 National Health Education Standards (NHES)
  • 57% of states reported developing, revising or assisting with model policy development and policy guidance on walking and biking to and from school
  • 67% of states reported distributing or providing model policies
  • 68% of states reported providing technical assistance to district or school staff on walking or biking to and from school
  • 61% of states and 29% of districts provided funding for professional development (through workshops, conferences, continuing education, or any other kind of in-service instruction) to establish walking or biking to school programs
  • 30% of districts had adopted policies to support active commuting to school -- an increase from 18% in 2006
  • Only 17% of districts reported having a policy for new or renovated schools that addresses alternative transportation
  • 58% of districts did not consider ability for students to walk or bike to school as a factor in school siting; only 9% found it to be a very influential factor

In 2014, the SHPSS focused on school and classroom-level data collected from health educators, physical education teachers, and other school contacts. Relevant findings included:

  • 42% of schools overall included pedestrian safety as part of required instruction (49% of elementary, 34% of middle, and 37% of high schools)
  • 48% of schools had paid or volunteer crossing guards, 6.2% of schools had walking school buses, and 62% of schools had bicycle racks
  • One-third of schools overall provided promotional materials to students or families on walking or biking to school (37% elementary schools, 36% of middle schools, 21% of high schools)
  • 48% of schools had law enforcement officers for traffic safety near the school
  • 40% of schools had traffic calming devices and 68% of schools had reduced speed limits during school travel times on streets abutting or adjacent to school grounds
  • Most schools (around 60%) had 10% or less participation in walking and biking to school; approximately 7% of schools prohibit walking or biking to school
  • Around one-quarter of schools use hazard busing
  • 46% of schools had joint use agreements for use of facilities for outdoor recreation and physical activities

Getting it in writing – developing strong policies to support active students

Even if your school or district doesn’t have wellness policies to support active transportation, you can take steps in the right direction.

  • The Safe Routes to School District Policy Workbook is a free interactive workbook that lets you develop a tailored district Safe Routes to School policy, and was developed by the Safe Routes Partnership and ChangeLab Solutions.
  • ChangeLab Solutions has model school wellness language on Safe Routes to School
  • Another tool, the WellSAT: 2.0 (Wellness School Assessment Tool), is available to evaluate school or district wellness policies in nutrition and physical activity. How does your school measure up? In the section assessing physical education and activity, questions address active transport for K-12 students and family and community engagement in physical activity opportunities. Encouraging your school or district to take this assessment could highlight biking and walking as an area for enhancing physical activity.
  • The Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program (CSPAP) guidelines published by the CDC offer a step-by-step guide to support physical activity through a multi-component approach that includes physical activity before and after school through active transport. These strategies describe a process for developing, implementing, and evaluating a CSPAP. Optimal CSPAP policy to support active transport includes partnership with local government and community-based organizations to implement programs like Safe Routes to School, according to Shape America. Updates on the availability of active transportation programs through school report cards can help schools stay accountable.

With all of these resources to develop strong policies, we hope that future surveys will reflect growth and improvements for Safe Routes to School program implementation and impact.