A child walking or biking to school has a lot to contend with: busy commercial streets, no sidewalks, speeding cars, and other hazards. Today traffic injuries are the leading cause of injury-related death among children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2011, only 13 percent of children risked the trip to school by foot or bike, according to a study of children ages 5 to 14—a dramatic drop from 1969 when that number was 48 percent. Parents cite fear of safety as their No. 1 reason for not allowing their children to walk to school, according to the CDC—particularly their safety as pedestrians.
“Some of the barriers include stray dogs—especially in the low-income communities, lack of sidewalks—children walking at a very early age by themselves,” says Jason Jackman, a program planner analyst at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa, Fla.
Making the walk to school safer has been for the last seven years a goal of a popular federal program administered by the Department of Transportation called Safe Routes to School, a program that now faces an uncertain fate. While the federal government has long played a major role in funding for state and local highways, it had before Safe Routes largely left school pedestrian safety measures up to states–such as creating slow zones, new sidewalks and bus traffic stop laws.
That may become the norm again. This year, the U.S. House of Representatives’ passed a 2012 transportation bill that ended dedicated funding for Safe Routes, a move that will put school safety improvements at much greater discretion of the states.
Between 2005 and 2012, Safe Routes dedicated $1.1 billion in federal money to “traffic-calming measures” around schools, such as narrowing streets, building speed bumps, converting two-way streets to one-way streets, and creating sidewalks. With the new transportation bill, Safe Routes now falls under a larger umbrella of “Transportation Alternatives” programs that will have to compete for funding against the likes of bike lanes and environmental mitigation projects—the kinds of projects Safe Routes boosters would tend to support.
In New York City, child pedestrian injury during school hours dropped 44 percent in areas where there were Safe Routes changes, according to the most comprehensive study of the program, published earlier this year by Drs. Charles DiMaggio and Guohua Li, who are epidemiologists at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
In Marin County, Calif., schools participating in Safe Routes reported a 64 percent increase in walking to school and a 114 percent increase in biking. At one school in automobile-heavy Atlanta, walking to school in the morning increased from 18 percent before a Safe Routes program was implemented in 2008 to 42 percent after, in 2010.
In the Tampa Bay area, where Jackman is the Safe Routes to School coordinator, program money has been used to install sidewalks in places where there used to be only grass and street, to fund local coordinator positions to encourage safe walking to school, and for a parent-led walk to school group, among other things.
While Safe Routes has evidently begun to improve safety in areas where injury numbers have been analyzed, there is still much more to be done.
As of March 2011, just 10 percent of schools in the United States have received Safe Routes money, according to a report by Safe Routes to School National Partnership, an advocacy network of organizations, government agencies and professional groups that support the program. Even during the program’s flushest period, states had to turn schools away because of funding limitations.
With the new funding arrangement, Safe Routes improvements will not necessarily end, but it is now up to states to decide how much—if anything—they want to put toward the program.
While some states such as Colorado and Ohio have said they will maintain Safe Routes as a program with dedicated funding, others like Utah and Missouri plan to transfer their Safe Routes funding to other projects, according to Margo Pedroso, the deputy director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.
Another hurdle is that localities must now put up around 20 percent of projects costs, like the majority of other federal transportation projects. Before, all of a project’s costs were eligible for federal money.
In Missouri, this will especially take a toll on small towns already strapped for cash, says Dr. Brent Hugh, the executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation.
“The loss of 100 percent match is really going to hurt. In Missouri a huge majority of our Safe Routes money went to rural towns,” he says. “Those communities are not going to be able to come up with the match. It’s a very significant amount of money for a school district or a small rural town.”
In Florida, where more pedestrians are killed than in any other state, Transportation Secretary Ananth Presad has nonetheless indicated the state will not prioritize funding for non-highway projects like Safe Routes.
“We must give serious consideration to whether—when resources and dollars are at a premium—spending money on sidewalks, bike trails, beautification and other projects like this is the most prudent use of taxpayer money,” Presad said at a congressional hearing last year.
But critics say that Florida and so many other parts of the country already devote a significant amount to highway and road spending at the expense of pedestrian and bike travel.
“Florida wasn’t built for pedestrian travel. It was built for motor vehicles. Safe Routes to School was a great opportunity to teach the younger generation how to walk and bike safely,” says Jackman.
There are already signs that the 2012 transportation bill has affected Safe Routes funding.
State spending on Safe Routes programs in the first quarter of the 2013 fiscal year slowed from previous quarters, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. About one-third of states did not set aside any funds to Safe Routes programs, according to the partnership.
State departments of transportation do not often realize how greatly these programs are valued at a local level, Pedroso says.
At Kimbell Elementary School in Tampa Florida, Safe Routes has brought more signage, patrol cars, and new sidewalks where they didn’t use to exist, and it has led to a transportation education program run by Jackman, who is the Safe Routes coordinator in that region. It has also led to a cultural change at the school, says Nikki Counce, the social worker at Kimbell.
“More parents let kids ride their bike, let kids walk,” she says “It creates a community. It helps other parents get to know each other as well. So that they’re looking out for other kids who live next to them. Parents have befriended each other.”
It also gives the kids opportunities to exercise, a benefit that supporters of the program frequently cite when they talk about its child obesity-fighting potential.
The likelihood that communities with Safe Routes projects have fixed all of their problems is “pretty slim,” says Pedroso.
“Local communities are clamoring for this money,” she says. “If all of the decisions were left to locals, we think these programs would be much more prioritized.”
Edited by Jordan Lite and Dana March. Additional research by Lauren Weisenfluh.
Top photo: A bike and walk to school program at Hunter’s Green Elementary in Tampa (credit: Jason Jackman)