The public and policymakers alike are well aware of the benefits of more students walking and biking to school. That activity not only creates lifelong healthy habits, but it helps improve student academic performance. But assuring that the infrastructure is there to make walking and biking to school safer — such as better street crossings, improved lighting and designated bicycle routes — can be expensive, which is why support for funding state-based Safe Routes to School (SRTS) sometimes crumbles among policymakers.
However, advocates in Oregon found that by building and maintaining an effective, broad-based coalition to argue for Safe Routes funding, and then keeping that coalition focused throughout the legislative session, they were able to overcome potential opposition and secure funding for the program. The result was an unprecedented $3.5 million investment in SRTS in Oregon by the Metro Council and the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation.
“We heard from the very beginning that a coalition would be very powerful in this process,” says LeeAnne Fergason, SRTS director for Oregon’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, who helped organize the coalition.
That coalition — the For Every Kid Coalition — quickly grew to 40 members, due largely to a series of community meetings that began in the summer of 2014. It not only included large well-known organizations such as the American Heart Association and the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, but also smaller, highly effective organizations, thanks to capacity building grants that were provided to those organizations.
“The coalition not only added a lot of value and ideas to make the legislative task more well-rounded, it allowed us to come to the Legislature as a united front with strong, broadbased support,” says Fergason.
The funding will improve safety for students who walk, bike, or use transit. The $3.5 million includes $1.5 million for a regional Safe Routes to School program and $2 million for street improvements near Title 1 schools which Fergason says is critically important from the standpoint of health as well as safety. The neighborhoods surrounding those schools largely lack sidewalks as well as safe street crossings. Mapping in Oregon has shown a direct correlation between rates of type 2 diabetes and Title 1 schools.
“You would hear people audibly gasp when they saw the map,” says Fergason.