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"Can we bike today? I want to meet Paco along the way so we can ride together." – Eli, age 9
"I am making Vision Zero holographic bracelets for students to wear, They are fashionable, unobstructive of uniform, and keep students safe when they walk to school.” –Zion, age 12
“I like biking to school because my teacher said it’s good for the planet!” – Sage, age 4
From a kid’s perspective, walking or biking to school or to neighborhood destinations makes perfect sense. It’s fun, they get to spend time with family and friends, and being active makes them feel good. As adults, we know the benefits of walking and biking are tremendous. Getting around on foot or by bike makes us healthier, helps reduce traffic congestion, decrease air pollution, and create friendlier, more inclusive communities.
But 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 10-13 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.
In addition, when streets are designed for cars, people who lack access to a vehicle bear the greatest risk to their health and safety. Overwhelmingly, kids who live in low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to walk or bike, but less likely to have access to safe sidewalks, bike paths, and street crossings.
Safe Routes to School programs are proven to effectively increase walking and biking to school, make it safer, 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 Body Mass Index (BMI) 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 through a Safe Routes to School coordinator and technical assistance. 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 reaches 110,000 students every two years.
Safe Routes to School Indicators
In our 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. This indicator looks at whether states are exercising 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, and when they don’t, it 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?
When states run a competition for transportation funding without any support or assistance for the application process, communities are less likely to apply, especially those that are low-income or rural, and may submit lower quality applications that are less likely to succeed. Some states provide fairly basic assistance, and others provide more extensive assistance to schools and communities, such as workshops, technical assistance, or resource centers.
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 including Minnesota 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 many as 5 to 1. Nearly 500 schools have been awarded Safe Routes to School 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 2018, Minnesota earned the maximum number of points possible for dedicated state Safe Routes to School funding and for funding non-infrastructure projects. The state’s success in this area can be traced back to a legislative campaign that began in 2012, when the federal Safe Routes to School program was coming to a close. At that time, 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 built bipartisan support enabling passage of legislation that provided $500,000 over two years for Safe Routes to School program needs.
With a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, in 2014 the coalition went back to work on 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. By working to create broad bipartisan support from lawmakers and the public, the legislature approved $1 million for Safe Routes to School infrastructure funding and an additional $250,000 per year for programming, yielding a total of $500,000 annually for non-infrastructure funding.
“Prior to 2012, the majority of investments in Safe Routes to School in Minnesota were focused on infrastructure,” said Dave Cowan, Minnesota’s Safe Routes to School state coordinator. “We were funding a lot of sidewalks and crossings near schools, which were needed, but we weren’t delving into education and encouragement. Since 2014, when the current funding structure was established, we have been able to use the non-infrastructure dollars to support communities through rigorous planning processes and strategically select projects that were included on the non-infrastructure side.” The annual non-infrastructure funding has also bolstered the state’s bicycle and pedestrian safety education program, which has trained more than 700 teachers to provide walking and bicycling skills lessons to students.
Minnesota also received full points in the State Report Cards for having retained its full-time Safe Routes to School coordinator position, even though the TAP regulations that came into effect in 2013 don’t require it. “Having a dedicated state coordinator focused on Safe Routes to School within the DOT is critical,” said Cowan. “There is a lot of work to do beyond administering funding – it’s crucial to also focus on relationship-building and education both within and outside of the agency around the value and importance of walking and biking to school. The more staff you have doing that, the more impact you’re going to have over time.”
Another indicator where Minnesota earned the maximum number of points was for providing technical assistance for Safe Routes to School initiatives. The program provides technical assistance through webinars, workshops, guides, and outreach to help communities with infrastructure and non-infrastructure funding applications. In addition, the state launched its Safe Routes to School Academy in 2016, which offers a free training to help communities build a comprehensive Safe Routes to School program or take their existing program to the next level. “We customize the training based on the community’s level of experience, and provide it to any community that requests it,” said Cowan.
Minnesota still has room to improve its support for Safe Routes to School. The only indicator where the state did not earn the maximum number of points was for providing special consideration for Safe Routes to School projects using TAP funds. However, Cowan explained that in practice Minnesota does have a strong track record of prioritizing Safe Routes to School, as evidenced by the high percentage of TAP projects that are Safe Routes to School projects. Consistently more than 40 percent of TAP projects are Safe Routes to School projects.
Minnesota’s strong score in the State Report Cards gives 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. “Even in just the past few years, I’ve noticed a shift in culture and in the way people talk about transportation at the state level,” says Cowan. “It’s not just Safe Routes to School program staff that care about prioritizing walking and biking. Public health professionals, policymakers, education partners, and DOT staff across departments are working together in many ways to support safe, equitable streets for people who walk and bike.”