Maybe not barefoot or without winter coats as they like to exaggerate, our parents and grandparents most likely did walk to school. It's just as likely that our kids don't. It's estimated that fewer than 15% of today's elementary and middle schoolers currently walk or bike to school, and that driving children to school accounts for as much as 25% of morning rush hour traffic.
But if federal transportation officials have anything to say about it, the trend is about to be reversed. And Congress has provided the tool to do it—$612 million over five years.
The Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program is a new, dedicated funding portion (Section 1404) of the 2005 federal highway funding bill (SAFETEA-LU). It provides municipalities with 100% federal funds—no local money required—to enhance the infrastructure and educate children and parents. At least 10% of funds must be used to educate kids on the health values of walking and biking, and how to do so safely.
The twofold premise is this: cut down on traffic congestion, fuel consumption, and pollution; and push today's kids outside for some much-needed exercise and physical activity.
Administered By The States
The program is being received enthusiastically: “Through January of 2007, 49 states had Safe Routes to School programs in various stages of development,” says Doug Hecox, spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). “More than a dozen states had announced funding for local or statewide SRTS activities, and nearly $18 million had been spent or committed to SRTS programs.”
Funding is funneled through the states by the FHWA in conjunction with regular federal aid highway apportionments. The formula is based on each state's percentage of the national total K-8 school population, with no state receiving less than $1 million in any fiscal year. Each state appoints a coordinator to work with local units of government to gather public input, identify needs, analyze projects, develop proposals, and shepherd applications through. Grants can be distributed to state, local, and regional agencies, including nonprofits that meet requirements. Projects can be for single, multiple, or regional schools. Based on federal guidelines, each state administers its own program and solicits and selects its own projects for funding.
In the upper Midwest, efforts even cross the state lines of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council (MIC) has developed SRTS applications for both “Twin Ports” cities. Superior, Wis., applied for funding for six schools before the federal highway bill passed. Geographically flat, Superior only buses children more than 2 miles from school. It is promoting biking. Duluth, Minn. on the other hand, buses kids beyond a 1-mile radius, and, built on a steep hill, it is focusing on walking. Nonetheless, the plans are similar.
“School site traffic circulation is key to every plan we've done,” says Holly Butcher, senior planner at the Duluth-Superior MIC. “In the immediate vicinity of the school, you must separate walkers and bikers from bus drop-off areas, parking lot entrances, and car drop zones to ensure safety.” To do that, Twin Ports projects will focus on traffic calming, signing, and developing specified drop locations.
In Florida, school boards, private schools, and community traffic safety teams apply for grants. Applicants, in turn, are sponsored by the city, county, or Metropolitan Planning Organizations, all of whom are qualified to enter into formal agreements with the state DOT.
“It's vital that all agencies work together to achieve a common goal,” says Pat Pieratte, SRTS coordinator for the Florida DOT. Pieratte is traveling the state, building a broad base of support by giving presentations on why the program matters.
The SRTS legislation also funded creation of the National Center for Safe Routes to School (the SRTS Clearinghouse) for developing and sharing information and educational programs to promote walking and biking to school and to provide states and municipalities with strategies and technical assistance.
The program has been funded for the five-year cycle of the current federal highway bill, with funds apportioned to each state annually. Funding levels increase slightly each year through 2009 when an estimated $183 million will be distributed.
Says Hecox, “Many state coordinators tell us that the dollar amount requested through applications far exceeds the available funding. This demonstrates the strong interest among communities to provide children the opportunity to walk safely to school.”
The Five E's
Grant recipients must incorporate five distinct components into their programs—the Five E's:
Engineering: Create operational and physical improvements to the infrastructure surrounding schools that reduce speeds and potential conflicts with traffic, and establish safer and fully accessible crossings, walkways, trails, and bikeways.
Education: Teach children about the broad range of transportation choices, instructing them in safety skills and launching driver safety campaigns.
Enforcement: Partner with local law enforcement to ensure that traffic laws are obeyed near schools and initiate community enforcement such as crossing guard programs.
Encouragement: Use events and activities to promote walking and bicycling.
Evaluation: Monitor and document outcomes and trends—both before and after program implementation.What Qualifies?
Infrastructure projects are the engineering components: planning, design, and construction that improve the ability of students to walk and bicycle to school. Eligible infrastructure projects include:
- Traffic calming and reductions
- Pedestrian and bicycle crossings
- On-street bike facilities
- Off-street bike and pedestrian facilities
- Secure bike parking facilities
- School zone traffic diversion improvements.
Common projects include signing, pavement marking, and signal upgrades to provide motorists with better advance notice of approaching school zones and pedestrians.
Between 10% and 30% of the available funds must be spent on non-infrastructure activities. Non-infrastructure projects are the remaining four E's and include:
- Public awareness efforts focusing on press and community leaders
- School vicinity traffic education and enforcement
- Student sessions on bicycle and pedestrian safety, health, and environment
- Training and funding for volunteers and STRS managers.
Qualified projects include promotional and education materials, trainers, school and communication workshops, data gathering and analysis, and additional law enforcement costs.
Because so few programs have been fully implemented, measured results are in the early stage. Many non-infrastructure curriculum programs will begin next school year and the early infrastructure projects in the coming construction season. But the National Center for Safe Routes to School has developed evaluation tools to measure behaviors and attitudes toward walking and bicycling to school. “We are encouraging all states to use these national tools to assess the impact of SRTS on student travel and habits,” says Hecox.
Find out more
National Center for Safe Routes to School:
Your state's SRTS coordinator:
Read Rep. James L. Oberstar's (D-Minn.) piece
on the inspiration for the program.
— Thomas McGlynn is director of highway safety business for 3M's Traffic Safety Systems Division.