Supporting Healthy Kids and Communities Through Safe Routes to School

April 22, 2019
in Safe Routes

The way we have invested in transportation over the years has prioritized trips by car and made it less safe and less convenient for people to get around by foot and bike. As a result, there has been a steep decline in walking and biking, even for short trips. Consider the trip to school: in 1969, 48 percent of kids walked and biked to school. Today, only about 10 percent of kids walk. Even for short trips of less than a mile, more than 60 percent of kids are driven by their parents each day.

 

 

Safe Routes to School programs are proven to effectively increase walking and biking to school and improve attendance, health, and well-being. Studies show that Safe Routes to School programs increase walking and biking between 31 and 43 percent. In addition, research demonstrates that children who walk and bike to school have better heart health, higher levels of physical activity, and lower BMIs than kids who do not actively commute to school. Safe Routes to School programs make a big difference in improving kids’ health, easing morning traffic congestion, decreasing traffic injuries, and reducing emissions that contribute to climate change.

 

 

One of the best ways states and communities can ensure that their Safe Routes to School programs are sustainable is by prioritizing funding for Safe Routes to School projects and providing additional support. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership’s report Making Strides: 2018 State Report Cards on Support for Walking, Biking, and Active Kids and Communities analyzed how each state funds and supports Safe Routes to School. In this guest blog post, the National Partnership explains the indicators that guided scoring and highlights how strong state support in Minnesota has helped build a robust program that has benefited nearly 500 schools and 110,000 students.

 

Safe Routes to School Indicators

In the report cards, states could earn a maximum of 25 points across Safe Routes to School related indicators by scoring between 0-5 points in each of these five areas:

Does the state provide special consideration for Safe Routes to School using Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) funds?

From 2005-2012, there was a stand-alone federal program that funded Safe Routes to School projects. Since 2013, there is no longer a dedicated program, and Safe Routes to School projects have been eligible to compete for funding through TAP. States do have the option to prioritize the funding of Safe Routes to School projects to ensure that children are safely able to walk and bike to school.

Are Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure projects eligible for funding?

Research shows that the most successful Safe Routes to School programs include both infrastructure improvements (building sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks, and other street-level improvements) and non-infrastructure elements – such as teaching traffic safety skills and hosting regular walking and biking to school events. States aren’t required to fund non-infrastructure projects, which limits the potential health and safety benefits.

Is there dedicated state funding for Safe Routes to School?

The federal TAP dollars meet only a fraction of the need for Safe Routes to School funding. Some states use other revenue sources, such as annual appropriations, state gas tax revenues, school zone traffic fines, or other means to supplement funding for Safe Routes to School projects.

Does the state have a Safe Routes to School coordinator?

From 2005-2012, states were required to have a dedicated Safe Routes to School coordinator. Since 2013, states are allowed, but are no longer required, to fund this position. Safe Routes to School coordinators play an important role in making sure funding is accessible, providing support and technical assistance to schools and communities, and acting as a liaison between schools and transportation professionals.

Does the state provide technical or application assistance to Safe Routes to School initiatives?

Some states provide more extensive assistance to schools and communities, such as workshops, technical assistance, or resource centers. This type of assistance is particularly important for low-income communities.

 

How States Measure Up

Oregon is the only state that scored the maximum possible 25 points across the five Safe Routes to School indicators. Washington and Utah each scored 24 points, and eight other states scored 20 points or more. The remaining 39 states scored 19 points or fewer.

 

A Deeper Dive: Safe Routes to School in Minnesota

Safe Routes to School programs are so popular in Minnesota that annual funding requests have exceeded available dollars by as much as 5 to 1. Nearly 500 schools have been awarded funding through MnDOT since 2005, and currently more than 110,000 students are directly receiving benefits from Safe Routes to School programs at their schools. A look back at how Minnesota’s Safe Routes to School program has evolved since 2012 shows how a successful legislative campaign, fueled by strong community demand for Safe Routes to School programs, has led to a formalized, state-funded program with a long lasting impact for students and communities.

In 2012, when the federal Safe Routes to School program was coming to a close, health and transportation advocates in Minnesota formed a broad coalition to build support for a dedicated state program. The coalition was made up of more than 50 organizations, including the American Heart Association, the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, the Minnesota for Healthy Kids Coalition, the Minnesota Medical Association, Minnesota, PTA, and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood – a 250-square block area in St. Paul in which 80 percent of the residents are from communities of color.

The coalition was successful in 2012 at establishing a state Safe Routes to School program, but it remained unfunded for the first year due to a significant state budget shortfall. In 2013, despite a continuing budget shortfall, the coalition was successful at building bipartisan support for legislation that provided $500,000 over two years for non-infrastructure Safe Routes to School needs.

In 2014, the coalition received a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids that funded a new campaign initiative to build public and legislative support for more Safe Routes to School funding. The grant funding was used to hire a legislative campaign coordinator and a communications coordinator for the 2014 legislative session, and to create a targeted communications campaign in tandem with American Heart Association Staff. Part of the campaign included Mission Readiness, an organization of retired generals and admirals working to improve the health of youth to strengthen the nation’s armed forces, submitting a guest editorial in support of Safe Routes to School that ran in several state and local newspapers.

As a result of this campaign, the legislature approved $1 million for Safe Routes to School infrastructure funding and an increase of $250,000 per year for a total of $500,000 annually for non-infrastructure funding.

Minnesota still has room to improve its support for Safe Routes to School. The state received 20 out of 25 points in the 2018 State Report Cards, earning the maximum points possible in all Safe Routes to School-related indicators except for one: providing special consideration for Safe Routes to School projects using TAP funds. Their strong scores in the other four indicators give advocates even more leverage to build support for prioritizing Safe Routes to School through TAP, and demonstrate how a state’s commitment to supporting Safe Routes to School can lead to better health and activity outcomes for kids.

 

Join the Safe Routes to School Action Team!