Safe Routes to School :: Practice and Promise
Safe Routes To School -
What Does That Mean?

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Chapter Two








Safe Routes To School (SR2S) efforts have been inspired by a myriad of concerns—therefore those efforts look different from community to community. The SR2S founders in Odense, Denmark, were mainly concerned about how many injuries children were suffering on their city's streets. In the Bronx, New York, organizers also were concerned about injuries. In Toronto, the major concern was air pollution, and people understood that unless prevailing trends in travel changed, the situation would worsen. The California Department of Health Services entered the field in 1999 with a special interest in promoting physical activity for health. In Chicago, the Walking School Bus (WSB) program, sponsored by the Department of Transportation and the Chicago Police Department, responded to concerns about children's safety in high-crime neighborhoods.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began funding Safe Routes To School in 2000, with two demonstration projects in Marin County, California, and Arlington, Massachusetts. NHTSA also began to gather and compile the array of SR2S activities into a central document, Safe Routes To School: Practice and Promise , in the hopes of making information readily available to decision-makers. The development of this guide included researching the effectiveness of Safe Routes To School efforts.

Common Threads

Projects that improve walking and bicycling conditions for schoolchildren have sprung up all over the world during the past 20 years. Regardless of what the organizers name the project, all include a combination of activities that make it safer for children to walk and bicycle to school. When we use the term Safe Routes To School, we mean the whole array of efforts. The beauty of the SR2S movement is that it is enormously diverse. However, some common threads characterize communities that demonstrate what we consider examples of “promising practices” in SR2S.

Based on the experience of many, we have identified key factors a community should have in place to provide comprehensive, effective, pleasant, and safe routes to school for its children:

  • The community – especially parents and school officials – believes in the value of walking and bicycling to school, and encourages children to do so.
  • Drivers are educated about how they contribute to traffic congestion, increase the risk of injury to children, and cause pollution. They also learn how safe driving reduces these risks.
  • Drivers are alert to the sizes and behaviors of child pedestrians and bicyclists, and yield to them.
  • Children and parents understand how to walk and bicycle safely and assertively.
  • Officials enforce laws that support and protect walkers and bicyclists.
  • Community planning for residential and school areas considers the safety and practicality of children walking or biking around their neighborhoods.
  • Streets are designed to encourage walking and bicycling, with sidewalks, bike paths, bike lanes, and traffic-calming measures.

The "Four Es" and Safe Routes To School

The key factors for a successful SR2S project fit nicely into the transportation safety framework that is familiar to health and safety professionals: the “Four Es.” Each “E” can be developed into an effort that supports SR2S goals.

  • Encouragement – Make walking and bicycling more attractive by planning special events to celebrate active travel, beautifying walking/bicycling routes, and by sponsoring classroom activities and contests.
  • Education – Teach children, adults, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists about traffic laws and safe and courteous behavior on the road; and about the health, environmental, and safety benefits of walking and bicycling.
  • Enforcement – Pass new laws or enforce existing ones to make it safe for children and adults to walk and bicycle. For example, enforce the law that requires motorists to yield to pedestrians at street corners or observe the speed limit in school zones.
  • Engineering – Build a better environment for walking and bicycling. Plan compact neighborhoods and school sites; construct or maintain sidewalks and bike lanes; and install traffic signals or change the design of streets through traffic-calming structures such as chicanes and bulb-outs.

Most SR2S efforts involve more than one of the “Four Es;” many include all four. What follows are examples of ways that five different communities have utilized one of the “Es” as part of a broader effort.

Encouragement: Walk To School Day-National and International

Because walking to school is somewhat uncommon in the United States, it is important to encourage nonwalkers to try it. The activity most effective in getting large numbers of parents and children to try walking is Walk To School Day, an event that began in Great Britain in 1994. America's first involvement came in 1997 with the Partnership for a Walkable America.

The event has grown each year, with NHTSA's support through the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. In 2002, three million people, in 28 countries, took part in International Walk To School Day. Quotes from a few of the American participants follow:

“It was a beautiful morning. Everyone had fun.”
Alex, fourth-grader, Nebraska

“It was a wonderful experience. We had 513 students walk with their parents and siblings. We all had a great time. Thanks for the idea.”
Tammy, parent, Texas

“I met the students at the driveway entrance to the school from Westwood. ... Jamie was so excited that her Mom drove across the railroad tracks and into the subdivision so she could walk to school. The duty teacher could not get over the high number of walkers for the day and less car traffic, too.”
Carolyn, teacher, Ohio

Although Walk To School Day events cannot guarantee that students will continue to walk, they are a positive first step. With the large number of people walking, parents and children feel safer and have fun. Walk To School Day may help skeptical parents or school personnel to see the value of walking, so that they support ongoing activities. Many communities have asked their walkers to complete the NHTSA Walkability Checklist (see Appendix C: Walkability & Bikeability Checklists), and on their walk to collect information about positive and negative experiences on various streets to help pinpoint areas that need attention from the local government.


Regardless of what the organizers name the project, all include a combination of activities that make it safer for children to walk and bicycle to school.






An adult walking with young boys



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