How to Create a Successful SRTS Project
There is no right way to create a Safe Routes to School project. Many successful programs begin with a few volunteers organizing Walk to School Day and then build on the excitement of the event by adding more activities throughout the year. In other communities, the Safe Routes to School program is created as a way to address traffic issues. The best way to ensure success in your school is to customize a program that meets the needs of your community.
The Federal Highway Administration notes that successful SRTS programs typically incorporate one or more of the following approaches:
Encouragement — Events and contests entice students to try walking and biking.
Education —Students are taught important safety skills for walking and bicycling.
Engineering — Physical improvements are made to the infrastructure surrounding the school, such as reducing speeds and establishing safer crosswalks and pathways.
Enforcement — Local law enforcement ensures drivers obey traffic laws.
Evaluation — Travel tallies and parent surveys establish a baseline for walking and bicycling habits and track program success over time.
Ideally, the most successful programs have integrated elements from all five approaches.
Developing a comprehensive SRTS program at your school may take time and effort, but the rewards — if well created and maintained — can last for generations.
How does my school or community get started with a SRTS project?
Before developing your project, it is essential to obtain a clear understanding of the true barriers to walking and bicycling and address them accordingly. Because physical, behavioral and perceived barriers may all influence whether children walk to school, it is important to discover the unique conditions and challenges at your school. Oftentimes, the true reasons that students do not walk to school are not apparent, yet they can be discovered through the work, input and investigation by a team made up of various members of the community.
Walkability Audits: Addressing Infrastructure and Behavioral Barriers
Conducting a walkability audit allows a school to assess the status of their walking/bicycling infrastructure and to document any dangerous (or illegal) behaviors performed by motorists or walking students. PennDOT provides a limited number of walkability audits through the SRTS program. However, your school can conduct its own walkability audit by following the steps below:
- Identify a team leader. This person is oftentimes a local planner or engineer.
- Assemble a team. The leader should assemble a multidisciplinary team that includes (at a minimum) school officials, municipal officials, local law enforcement, parents and students.
- Assemble information ahead of time. The team leader and the team should identify existing walking and bicycling routes to school and then contact PennDOT and/or the local officials to obtain reported crash or incident data for the areas surrounding the school.
- Hold a kickoff meeting. The team leader should hold a kickoff meeting with the multidisciplinary team. This meeting will serve as an open forum to discuss the most commonly used student travel routes and any physical or perceived barriers along them.
- Walk the routes. The team should break into groups and walk these routes, ideally while students are walking to or from school. As the team members walk, they should look for things that may prevent students from walking safely, and take notes and photos along the way. These obstacles can be infrastructure (missing sidewalks, incorrect signals/signs, etc.) or noninfrastructure (no crossing guards, no planned routes or walking school buses, drivers failing to yield, etc.) in nature. To help with your walking assessment, use this walkability checklist.
- Prepare a final report. After walking the routes, the team reassembles to discuss successes and areas for improvement that were observed during the walks. Observations and photos should be included in the final report, which will summarize all findings. Based on the team's findings, a list of recommended infrastructure and noninfrastructure strategies for improving safety and encouraging participation should be developed for the short, medium and long term.
Templates and guidance materials for conducting a walkability audit are available on this website.
Parent Surveys: Determining Perceived Barriers to Walking and Biking
According to the National Center for SRTS, which has collected data from around the country, the top five reasons why parents do not allow students to walk to school are:
- Distance to school
- Traffic speed along the routes
- Traffic volume along the routes
- Intersection and crossing safety concerns
While distance from school and weather obviously cannot be addressed by the SRTS program, projects that reduce traffic speed and traffic volume or that improve intersections and crossing safety are within the realm of Safe Routes projects.
To get a better understanding of why students in your school do not walk or bicycle to school, it is best to ask the people who most often make the transportation decisions for students: the parents. Obtaining parent input can be done during discussions at school meetings, such as PTO/PTA, or through take-home surveys. The National Center for SRTS has developed a parent survey for this purpose.
What makes a good SRTS project?
Once the barriers have all been gathered, you can now begin to develop solutions. The funding for the federal SRTS program is divided into infrastructure and noninfrastructure, but this does not mean that these two types of projects are mutually exclusive. In fact, on the application for infrastructure funding, project sponsors must describe noninfrastructure activities that the school has coordinated in the past and plans for the future. Such projects can serve as a "match" to the infrastructure funding. The school's participation ensures that projects are sustainable and that the limited funding is spent effectively.
While you brainstorm and propose improvements to make safer routes to school, it is important to find solutions that address the concerns identified by parents and by the walkability team. For example, parents report that their students are not allowed to walk because of a lack of crossing guards, and the walkability team identified a dangerous intersection during its audit. In this case, an infrastructure project that focuses on improving crossing safety at the intersection would be the most appropriate way to address the physical barrier. To complement the infrastructure upgrade, the school should plan to hire and properly train crossing guards to help mitigate the parental concern.
Here are some other tips for designing an effective SRTS project:
Assess Cost-Benefit Ratio
Cost effectiveness is an element that is oftentimes overlooked during the project development process. For purposes of the SRTS program, a good way to evaluate a project's cost-benefit ratio is to compare how many students are positively affected by the project to the overall cost of the project.
Using this formula, projects that do not involve construction are generally more cost-effective. For instance, many applicants seek infrastructure funding for projects involving sidewalks, which will require advanced design, environmental documentation, right-of-way acquisition, utility relocation, etc. By comparison, restriping a crosswalk, retiming existing signals, installing a bike rack, or placing updated signs requires relatively minimal preconstruction efforts. These smaller projects may be just as effective as projects that "turn dirt," but they typically cost far less and may be implemented relatively quickly.
During the early stages of project development, a school or community should think about how to right-size the project. Because more expensive projects are tougher to justify than relatively simple, efficient projects, the project sponsor should try to constrain the scope and cost of the project as much as possible.
You can easily right-size your SRTS projects, for example, by limiting them to the major routes that students in kindergarten through the eighth grade use to walk and bike to and from school. Generally, improvements on routes closest to school provide benefits to a greater number of students. That said, there may be gaps or outstanding safety hazards along student travel routes that need to be addressed. It is up to the school to decide how to prioritize — and justify — proposed improvements.
Phase the Project
Since it is difficult to fund proposed activities and improvements all at once, it may be beneficial to phase the project. Generally, you'll want to prioritize activities that do one or more of the following:
- Correct an outstanding safety hazard
- Quickly improve safety at a relatively low cost
- Enable/encourage the most children to walk to school
Projects of this nature provide the most "bang for the buck" and therefore will receive more consideration during any selection process for available state and federal funding.
Conversely, projects that have any of the following attributes may be better suited for long-range plans and/or other sources of funding instead of SRTS:
- Require advanced design or have environmental, cultural, right-of-way, or utility issues
- Affect students only indirectly and instead are more focused on general community mobility
- Are controversial or not agreed upon by members of the school or community
- Have a high cost and/or would take years to implement
Justify the Project
In the end, it is up to the school and community to decide which improvements would best benefit their students. Furthermore, the project sponsor must justify how and why these improvements will benefit K-8 students.
When applying for funding to address SRTS, the sponsor should develop and be sure to attach maps or other graphics that show the school, the student walking routes (existing or proposed), and the surrounding residential areas from which students walk. Such maps can be done using professional software or relatively simple and free online programs such as Google Maps. A brief tutorial of how to create a basic map is available at Google Maps: How to make a map.
Photos of the walking infrastructure are also helpful to include with any SRTS funding application, especially for justifying upgrade or replacement of certain items.