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History of Safe Routes to School: From Denmark to Chicago

The Safe Routes to School SRTS concept began in the late 1970s in Odense, Denmark over concern for the city’s pedestrian accident rate. They implemented a number of improvements including a network of pedestrian and bicycle paths, slow speed areas, narrowed roads and traffic islands. The result was an 85% reduction in traffic injuries to children. Because of the success of the program in Denmark, the SRTS concept spread internationally, with programs developing throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. The first SRTS program in the United States was started in 1997 in the Bronx borough of New York City. In August 2005, federal transportation legislation devoted $612 million for the federal SRTS Program from 2005 through 2009. Although this legislation expired in 2009, funding for its programs has been extended, pending a new transportation safety bill. It is this program that funds Illinois’ Safe Routes to School Program.

Why We Need Safe Routes to School: The Decline of Walking and Bicycling 

Not long ago, children routinely moved around their neighborhoods by foot or by bicycle, often traveling to and from school in this way. This is no longer the case. Whether looking at the total proportion of children walking and bicycling to school, or just those children that live within a mile of the school, the decline in walking and bicycling to school is apparent.

     In 1969

          42 percent of children 5 to 18 years of age walked or biked to school.
          87 percent of children 5 to 18 years of age who lived within one mile of school walked or biked to school.

     In 2001

          16 percent of children 5 to 18 years of age walked or biked to school. 
          63 percent of children 5 to 18 years of age who lived within one mile of school walked or biked to school. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1.  Active transport to school: 1969 National Personal Transportation Survey (NPTS) versus 2001 National Household Transportation Survey

As walking and biking to school has declined the rates of obesity and asthma among children have increased dramatically. Public health and medical professionals have begun to speculate that the current generation of children may be the first that will not live as long as their parents. (See Figure 2)

Figure 2.

What Caused the Decline in Walking and Bicycling to School 

The circumstances that have led to a decline in walking and bicycling to school did not happen overnight and have created a self-perpetuating cycle. As motor vehicle traffic increases, parents become more convinced that it is unsafe for their children to walk or bicycle to school. They then begin driving their children to school, which adds even more traffic to the road and sustains the cycle. Understanding the many reasons why so many children do not walk or bicycle to school is the first step in interrupting the cycle. The following reasons are often cited by parents:

  • Distance to School. Beginning in the 1970’s, rather than renovating existing schools or building within the community, most new schools were built on the edges of communities where the land costs were lower. This requires many students to travel farther making it difficult, if not impossible, for children to walk or bicycle to school.
  • Traffic-Related Danger. In 2004, 493 pedestrians and bicyclists ages 14 and under were killed and approximately 29,000 children were injured while walking or bicycling in the United States. An increasingly common response by many parents is to drive their child to school. However, being inside a motor vehicle does not ensure safety. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for school-age children.
  • Weather Conditions. While the weather has not changed much since a generation ago when so many children walked or biked, adverse weather is frequently cited as a reason for not allowing children to walk to school.
  • Crime Danger. Crime concerns may be based on both real and perceived crime. In any case, these fears affect how many children are allowed to walk or bicycle to school. SRTS programs work to identify what are the real dangers and what are perceptions and try to address both.
  • Opposing School Policies. Some schools or communities enforce school policies that prohibit children from walking and bicycling to school. Although the restriction may have stemmed from safety concerns for students, its implications could work against a SRTS program. The solution may be to address the safety issues rather than permanently prohibit walking and bicycling to school. Identifying and understanding the reasons underlying the policy can help programs address important issues and reverse the policy if appropriate.
Benefits of Safe Routes to School 

Safe Routes to School programs can help reverse the dangerous downward trend in physical activity levels among children. Walking and bicycling to and from school can contribute towards the development of a lifelong habit of incorporating physical activity into daily routines. Children who walk to school are more physically active overall than those who travel to school by car. Among the benefits of successful Safe Routes to School program are:

  • Reducing the number of children hit by cars.
  • Reducing congestion around schools— Parents driving their children to school account for 20%-25% of morning rush hour traffic. (Source: NHTSA 2003; Dept. of Environment).
  • Improving children’s health—Physical activity is needed for proper growth and development.
  • Reducing air pollution—This is important since air pollutants have been shown to exacerbate asthma.
  • Saving money for schools— Reduce need for School Safety Busing in which bus service is provided for children who live close to school because the routes are not safe for walking.
  • Improving community security— Increases eyes on the street.
  • Increasing children’s sense of freedom.
  • Teaching pedestrian and bicycle skills.
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