DOT logo
NHTSA logo

Safe Routes to School

Index / NHTSA Home / Table of Contents

In August 2000, the Marin County Bicycle Coalition and Walk Boston, with funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), began to develop a national model Safe Routes to School program. Congressman James Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, endorsed the program as a means to reduce traffic congestion around schools and promote healthy alternatives.

Marin County is a picturesque community north of San Francisco with numerous historic small towns and miles of open space. Despite its low population growth, traffic congestion has grown increasingly worse with 21 percent of the morning commute resulting from parents driving their children to school.1 In fact, surveys indicated that 73 percent of students commuted to school by car; 14 percent walked; 7 percent biked; and 3 percent arrived by bus.

To demonstrate the benefits of the Safe Routes to School program, the Marin County Bicycle Coalition recruited nine pilot schools in four locations. Each school received guidance, forms, newsletters, and other promotional materials. In two jurisdictions, schools were grouped to form citywide Task Forces to study engineering solutions to increase safety on routes to schools. A transportation engineer was hired to assist in developing these plans. Every school held periodic Walk and Bike to School Days and participated in the Frequent Rider Miles contest which rewarded children who came to school walking, biking, by carpool, or by bus. At the end of the pilot program there was a 57 percent increase in the number of children walking and biking to school and a 29 percent decrease in the number of children arriving by car (those not in a carpool).

This toolkit resulted from the experiences of the Marin County pilot program and from other Safe Routes to School programs in the United States, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, and in the United Kingdom.

We offer this toolkit to others who wish to start a Safe Routes to School program in your school or community.

Wendi Kallins
May 2002

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to this Toolkit and pilot program:

Program Director/Author – Wendi Kallins
Marin County Bicycle Coalition Executive Director – Debbie Hubsmith
Safe Routes Instructor – Chris Davis
Design and Production – Missy Anapolsky, Circle Design and Laurie Ahlf
Final Editing/Post Production/Printing – National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Editors and Sound Advice – Colette Weil, Roz Hamar, Karen Engbretson, Gracie Askew,
Peggy DiSilva, Ken Eichstaedt, David Parisi, Ken Owens, Scott Bricker, Anne Seeley
Engineering Consultants – David Parisi and Michael Jones (Alta Consulting)

Funding Provided by:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Office of Traffic Safety Programs
Marin Community Foundation
University of California at San Francisco/
California Department of Health Services’ Safe Routes to School Program
California Office of Traffic Safety

Special Thanks to the Parents, Teachers, Principals, and Neighbors at the Marin County Pilot Schools:

Edna Maguire
Tam Valley School
Mill Valley Middle School
Marin Horizon
Lagunitas Schools
Manor School
St. Rita’s
Vallecito School

Thanks also for the support and collaboration by elected officials and staff of the City of Mill Valley, the Town of Fairfax, and the County of Marin, California.

Did you walk or bike to school when you were a child? Thirty years ago, more than 66 percent of all children walked to school.2 Walking or biking to school gives children a sense of freedom and responsibility, allows them to enjoy the fresh air, and provides opportunities to get to know their neighborhood while arriving at school alert, refreshed, and ready to start their day. Yet most American children are denied this experience; in fact, only 13 percent of American children walk or bike to school.3

Recent research indicates that 20 to 25 percent4 of morning traffic is due to parents driving their children to school. As a result, traffic congestion has increased around schools, prompting even more parents to drive their children to school. The health consequences to our children and to the well being of the community are extensive. (See Resources.)

A successful Safe Routes to School (SR2S) program integrates health, fitness, traffic relief, environmental awareness, and safety under one program. It is an opportunity to work closely with your school, your community, and your local government to create a healthy lifestyle for children and a safer, cleaner environment for everyone.

The Toolkit
This toolkit has been designed to assist you in initiating and implementing a SR2S program. Many successful SR2S programs began with just one or two volunteers organizing a Walk and Bike to School Day, using the energy generated from a single event to build a SR2S program. Other SR2S programs were created through a community-wide Task Force organized by public officials to address traffic issues. There is no “right” way to start the program. Customizing your program to the needs of your community will ensure the success of your program but your chance of success will increase if you follow in the footsteps of the pilot programs.

Successful SR2S programs in the United States have incorporated one or more of the following approaches:

The Encouragement Approach uses events and contests to entice students to try walking and biking.

The Education Approach teaches students important safety skills and launches driver safety campaigns.

The Engineering Approach focuses on creating physical improvements to the infrastructure surrounding the school, reducing speeds and establishing safer crosswalks and pathways.

The Enforcement Approach uses local law enforcement to ensure drivers obey traffic laws.

Although each element can stand alone, the most successful programs have integrated elements from all four approaches. Each time the program is adapted, new ideas emerge. Use research data, innovation, and imagination to develop a program that best suits your school and community.

How to Get Started
Who is Involved?

The basic components of the Safe Routes to School program outlined in this toolkit are:
  • Activities and Outreach
  • Mapping the Routes to School
  • Classroom Lessons
The overview section of this toolkit describes the basics of a SR2S program. The Promotions Toolkit provides ideas about events and contests, as well as other tips to generate interest in the program. The Safe Streets Toolkit helps you map routes to schools in your community and provides information on practices used to ensure traffic safety. The Classroom Lessons section provides ideas that will encourage students to reflect on their transportation choices and teach them basic safety skills. The toolkit also supplies you with sample SR2S forms, press releases, posters, and other resources.

Fitting a Team Together
The community-wide Task Force serves as an access point to these officials. If your program is not a part of a Task Force, notify city officials yourself. Officials from your local municipality are important partners because they can provide resources, are effective in building community support, and can influence policies that will lead to improved bicycle and pedestrian travel facilities. Contact law enforcement personnel, city council members, and public works and public health staff members and describe your plan to form a SR2S team and what you hope to accomplish through this program. Invite them to your first meeting and continue to keep them informed.

In your letters to these community leaders, outline the resources you need. Traffic engineers and the public works department can provide maps and help to evaluate the safety conditions near your school (See the Safe Streets Toolkit). Law enforcement can patrol your event and provide safety training for the children. Elected officials can help make key decisions and build community support. Tell these partners how their efforts will meet their department’s goals, that it will be a useful public relations tool, and will improve the health and safety of the community.

Your program should involve the following stakeholders:

— Parents
— Students
— Teachers
— Neighbors
— School Staff Members
— City or County Staff Members
— Elected Officials
— Businesses
— Community Groups
— Law Enforcement/Crossing Guards

Create Agreements
It is important to have the cooperation of all agencies responsible for implementing a SR2S program. Get partnership agreements from your local municipality, the school board and principal of your school (see Resources for samples). These agreements should indicate that the agency supports the program and will participate by providing staff resources. City governments need to provide police enforcement for events and enlist the cooperation of the public works department in mapping the routes and identifying safety improvements. The principal and school board need to set aside some class time for the program and be willing to help promote events and contests.

Collect Information
The first step for any SR2S program is to collect your baseline data through surveys and traffic counts (See Promotions Toolkit for details) to learn how students currently arrive at school.

Student surveys will enable you to determine how children get to school. A quick daily show of hands during homeroom is often enough to get a feel for student travel habits at your school.

Traffic counts will supplement this information by determining how many vehicles enter school grounds to drop off children.

Parent surveys measure attitudes and identify obstacles and opportunities for changing behavior.

Traffic and crash data, which can be obtained from your state’s department of transportation and department of public health, will help to convince officials of the project’s importance.

Walk and Bike to School Days are a great way to inaugurate your program and generate enthusiasm (see Promotions section for details on organizing this event). International Walk to School Day, held the first Wednesday in October, offers an opportunity to plug your school into a successful worldwide movement. Schools across the nation have used this event to launch ongoing and permanent safety and education programs, and secure funding for street improvements. Schools that have success with International Walk to School Day can keep the energy alive by organizing Walk and Bike to School Days, either weekly or monthly. Even if you start with a small number of ongoing participants, continue to promote your events and they will have a cumulative and lasting effect. Other event ideas are described in the Promotions section.

Contests are an ideal way to get children’s attention and motivate them to try something new. Contests can take many forms. Children can think about real world issues through art projects or essays. Challenge students to travel to school in different ways and reward them either individually or reward the entire class. The ultimate goal is to engage students through a contest to discover the value in walking or biking to school, without receiving an award.

Teach Children in the Classroom
Teaching children basic pedestrian and bicycle skills is vital to the success of your SR2S program. Rodeos and obstacle courses are examples of fun activities for students. Teaching health, fitness, and the environmental consequences of various transportation modes enhances children’s ability to make healthy choices in their lives, which will have a positive impact on the community and our Earth.

Map the Routes
The Safe Routes to School Task Force focuses on developing a Safe Routes to School Improvement Plan. The SR2S Task Force will identify a focused area surrounding the schools, mapping the routes that children currently take to school, suggest safer routes when necessary, and recommend improvements. Walk the routes in groups and identify safety issues, using the Safe Routes Checklist and locating them on a map. Involve the students and have them map the routes themselves. Those who walk and ride regularly already are familiar with their streets, while those who do not, will begin to learn about their neighborhood. Working with local government staff, develop a SR2S Improvement Plan for addressing such safety issues as speeding cars, dangerous intersections, and missing or ineffective crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes.

Escort Programs
Many parents would like to allow their children to walk or bike to school but are afraid of letting them walk or bike alone. Escort programs address the immediate need for safety and complement more permanent infrastructure improvements. The “Walking School Bus” (or “Bike Train”) involves adult volunteers who accompany children to school, stopping at designated locations where children can join the “bus” or “train” at pre-arranged times (see more about the “Walking School Bus” in the Safe Streets section). Escort programs require a commitment of volunteer resources and good coordination.

A crossing guard program can train volunteers to help children cross the road. School districts should be encouraged to place guards at particularly dangerous crossings. Other escort programs provide monitors on the street or find neighbors to offer their homes as Safe Houses. This is a form of community participation that urban visionary Jane Jacobs called “Eyes on the Street,” and is particularly useful in urban areas where crime is a major concern.

Carpools and Buses
Many children live too far from school to expect them to walk or bike to school. This is especially true for children who attend private schools. Some schools offer a bus program, using yellow school buses or through agreements with city bus services. If so, include a carpooling and bus component in all your SR2S activities and encourage parents to form carpools with special incentives such as preferred drop-off areas for carpools. Hold neighborhood coffees at the beginning of the school year to help parents meet their neighbors and arrange carpools. In addition, create special contests for parents who carpool, with awards such as free baby-sitting or romantic get-a-ways. Organized “Walking School Buses” and “Bike Trains” can become carpools on stormy days.

Keep Your Program Alive
It takes time to develop new cultural attitudes about transportation. Be sure to reintroduce your program every year at the beginning of the school year. You should:

1. Marin County Congestion, a report by the Marin County Congestion Management Agency, January 2002. (back)

2./3. Kidwalk-to-School, Department of Health Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2000  (back)

4. Marin County Congestion Management Agency (back)

Index / NHTSA Home / Table of Contents