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New Horizons, New Dangers for "Safe Routes to School"

by Christopher Kidd

Since its inception as a pilot project in Marin County in 1994, the Safe Routes to School program has grown into a national phenomenon. What seems at first to be a single-issue program instead has proven itself to be one of the strongest and most broadly-accepted mechanisms for introducing elements of sustainability to communities throughout the country. However, at the same time that Safe Routes to School is reaching towards new heights, it is also being threatened at its very core.

How It All Works
Before diving into the latest on Safe Routes to School, it may be important to look at just how this program contributes towards truly sustainable communities. Safe Routes to School provides funding in two distinct categories: infrastructure and programs. One side removes the physical barriers to walking and biking while the other removes psychological ones.

On the infrastructure side, schools and cities receive grant funding to improve safety around schools and remove current barriers for walking and biking. This includes projects such as improved mid-block crosswalks, adding or expanding sidewalks, and installing bike lanes, curb extensions, and other traffic calming devices.

On the programs side, schools and cities receive grant funding to educate and encourage both students and parents. This includes programs such as traffic safety assemblies, safety campaigns, and Walk & Bike to School Day. It also includes programs such as the Walking School Bus or Bike Train, providing supervised travel to school for students while giving parents peace of mind that their child stays safe.

Why It Matters
Safe Routes to School sits at the nexus of many threads of sustainability. Let's crunch some nationwide numbers to make our point:

While this can partially be explained away by sprawling communities putting children further and further from school, it only tells part of the story. At the same time, childhood obesity and asthma rates have seen a dramatic spike: By enacting a Safe Routes to School Program, a community can (1) create a physical environment that is safer for biking and walking; (2) fight obesity and the future medical costs associated with it; (3) reduce congestion, emissions, and asthma rates, and; (4) instill life-long habits in children to walk and bike rather than depend on driving.

Another strength of the Safe Routes to School Program is in its sheer un-objectionability. It's no secret that large swathes of the United States take a dim view towards composting, climate change, or public transportation. But present these same folks with the opportunity to improve safety for their children, reduce their own commute times, and hearken back to an idyllically American yesteryear? They're all ears.

Uncertain Future
Political conflicts in Washington over the Transportation Bill could throw into doubt the future of worthy Safe Routes to School programs. The current proposal from House Republicans (H.R. 7), includes, among cuts to many alternative forms of transportation, the total elimination of funding for the federal Safe Routes to School Program. While the House bill is on thin ice, the Safe Routes to School Program could still take a huge cut when all is said and done. While California funds its own Safe Routes to School Program in addition to the federal one, not every state is so lucky.

Safe Routes Programs on a Regional Scale
Despite uncertainty at the federal level, work in the San Francisco Bay Area may help transform Safe Routes to School into a vital tool for fighting climate change.

Our regional transportation authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), is engaging in a comprehensive process called the Climate Initiatives Program. Through this program, the MTC is exploring ways to reduce regional emissions and meet the requirements of AB 32 and SB 375--California's one-two legislative punch to beat back climate change.

While the programmatic elements of Safe Routes to School have always helped reduce emissions, MTC is starting to measure these reductions on a regional scale with funding from the Climate Initatives Program. The data gathered will provide valuable information on emissions reductions and bolster the rationale for Safe Routes to School.

MTC is also piloting programs that begin as part of Safe Routes to School, but can perhaps be scaled up to the regional level. Data gathered from programs like the Climb-It Challenge may provide valuable tools for reducing emissions by all age groups.

Advocates for Safe Routes to School should key a sharp eye on developments in both Washington and in the Bay Area. What happens in the halls of power may provide new avenues for a truly transformative program--or a dismal roadblock to its beneficial efforts.

Christopher Kidd works as a planner for Alta Planning + Design, Inc.. Christopher previously worked for the Los Angeles Deepartment of Transportation Bike Program where he, among other projects, created their award-winning social media strategy, founded the LADOT Bike Blog, and co-managed the media campaign for the nation's first Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Ordinance. He currently resides in Oakland, California.

Photo courtesy Safe Routes to School, California.