The Basics of Safe Routes to School

Comprehensive Safe Routes to School initiatives have been shown to be more effective at increasing physical activity and reducing injuries.  A comprehensive approach requires embedding Safe Routes to School into many aspects of a community. Programs often use the 6 E’s as a framework for identifying needs and structuring activities and goals. Below, we go into detail about each component of a Safe Routes to School program and suggest tools you can use to get started.

Education

Providing students and the community with the skills to walk and bicycle safely, educating them about benefits of walking and bicycling, and teaching them about the broad range of transportation choices.

Many Safe Routes to School programs incorporate bicycle and pedestrian safety training in the classroom and in the field to teach students the basics associated with walking and bicycling with traffic. Younger students are taught pedestrian safety skills such as how to cross the street, not to dart in front of cars and how to look for cars when walking past driveways. Older students are often taught the basics of bicycling, including balancing, signaling, following traffic rules and how to properly wear a helmet.

Family and community member education is also an important component of a Safe Routes to School program. Through educational programs, families are asked to follow the rules of the road when they are driving, walking and bicycling. They are encouraged to practice walking and bicycling with their children, as traffic safety is learned behavior that can only be acquired through hands-on experiences. Additionally, driver safety campaigns can extend to the entire community, so that everyone becomes aware of children walking and bicycling and understands how to share the road safely.

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Encouragement

Generating enthusiasm and increased walking and bicycling for students through events, activities, and programs.

Encouragement strategies can often be started relatively easily with little cost and a focus on fun. Children, families, teachers, school administrators and others can all be involved in special events like International Walk to School Day and ongoing activities like walking school buses and bike trains. Special events have been proven effective in inspiring students, families, elected officials and school leaders to try something new, which often results in the development of ongoing programs to encourage walking and bicycling. Contests, competitions, and incentives further encourage increased walking and bicycling.  

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  • Walk to School Day and Bike to School Day are some of the most popular encouragement events taking place at schools across the country each year. Walk to School Day takes place in early October, and Bike to School Day is generally held the first Wednesday in May, but schools can adjust the schedule based on their needs.
  • Other encouragement programs create regular, ongoing opportunities for parents to walk and bicycle with groups of children who live together in a neighborhood. Through the formation of walking school buses and bike trains, parents can take turns accompanying groups of children on the trip to school, ensuring a supervised commute and creating strong community cooperation.
Engineering

Creating physical improvements to streets and neighborhoods that make walking and bicycling safer, more comfortable, and more convenient.

Changes to the streets around schools through engineering improvements are a critical component of Safe Routes to School, and most successful programs include a thorough community assessment of the barriers for students and families walking and bicycling to school. These assessments should consider the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the elements directly in front of the school that impact arrival and dismissal for people walking and biking. One of the first steps that Safe Routes to School programs often use to identify possible engineering solutions is to organize walking and bicycling audits so that families can join city transportation and school district staff in walking the routes to school and identifying everyday problems that students and families encounter.

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Equity

Ensuring that Safe Routes to School initiatives are benefiting all demographic groups, with particular attention to ensuring safe, healthy, and fair outcomes for low-income students, students of color, students of all genders, students with disabilities, and others.

By prioritizing schools and communities with the highest need for safe walking and biking conditions, education programs, and enforcement solutions, equitable Safe Routes to School programs address health disparities and power imbalances that lead to disparate health, educational, and economic outcomes that can span generations – and often emerge along lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.

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Enforcement

Deterring unsafe traffic behaviors and encouraging safe habits by people walking, bicycling and driving in school neighborhoods and along school routes.

Enforcement increases awareness and reduces the frequency of crime and traffic safety problems. Examples include providing crossing guards, creating student safety patrols, enforcing traffic laws and pick-up and drop-off procedures, and addressing environmental concerns such as abandoned houses, litter and dogs.

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Evaluation

Assessing which approaches are more or less successful, ensuring that programs and initiatives are supporting equitable outcomes, and identifying unintended consequences or opportunities to improve the effectiveness of each approach.

There are numerous methods for quickly collecting information. Surveys of families help to reveal why families are driving their children to school instead of allowing them to walk or bicycle, and will provide insight into what changes might encourage a shift in their behavior. Student surveys elicit the attitudes of the youth, and help demonstrate how to craft a program that will be appealing.

It’s also important to know what percentages of students are walking, biking, taking the bus, being driven alone, and carpooling to school. This will help you gauge the effects of the program on student travel choices. Student in-class travel tallies should be taken once or twice each school year.

Evaluation data is key to determining the scope and the success of a Safe Routes to School program. The tools mentioned above are a great starting point to understanding travel choices at your school or district and provide the foundation for an effective Safe Routes to School program.

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  • Safe Routes to School Data Collection System: This system provides a way for local, regional, and state Safe Routes to School partners to enter and view data collected using the standardized Student Travel Tally and Parent Survey questionnaires.