Elevating Safe Routes to School in a Safe System Approach

The passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law paired with the Biden Administration’s release of the National Roadway Safety Strategy makes this a unique moment in to prioritize the safety of people – including young people – in transportation planning and investment. How can you make the most of the focus on a Safe System approach to invest or re-invest in Safe Routes to School?

In late January, the Biden Administration released the National Roadway Safety Strategy, a “comprehensive approach to significantly reducing serious injuries and deaths on our Nation’s highways, roads, and streets.” We applaud the administration for this step, particularly for its adoption of a Safe System approach. Much has been written about the Safe System approach, but distilled, it is an approach to transportation planning that recognizes that when getting around, people make mistakes, and it aims to minimize harm to people when those mistakes happen. USDOT’s embrace of this approach represents a paradigm shift: moving away from victim blaming individual road users for causing crashes, injuries, and fatalities to an acknowledgment that people make decisions within a transportation ecosystem, and there are a number of ways to make that ecosystem safer rather than focusing only on individual people.

As the National Roadway Safety Strategy states, all levels of government have a responsibility to play in creating a Safe System. Safe Routes to School can and should be part of every jurisdiction’s Safe System approach. Research bears out that Safe Routes to School works to keep kids safe from injury and fatality, while simultaneously offering a host of other benefits for kids’ academic performance and the environment. There are three elements of a Safe System approach in particular that can be strengthened through Safe Routes to School: Safer People, Safer Roads, and Safer Speeds. If you are reading this blog, you likely know that what makes Safe Routes to School unique and effective is the pairing of infrastructure (Safer Roads and Safer Speeds) with non-infrastructure (Safer People). Here are a few ways we are thinking about the opportunity to integrate Safe Routes to School into a Safe System approach and ideas for how to fund these strategies. 

  • Safer People– “Encourage safe, responsible behavior by people who use our roads and create conditions that prioritize their ability to reach their destination unharmed.”
    • Safe Routes to School programming teaches kids and young people the rules of the road, how to walk and bicycle safely and how to be predictable pedestrians and bicyclists that co-exist within the larger transportation eco-system, building a culture of safer people. Safe Routes to School encourages young people to walk and bike as safe, reliable, and fun modes of transportation.
    • Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure is eligible for funding through Transportation Alternatives Program, Surface Transportation Block Grant, and up to ten percent of Highway Safety Improvement Program funds)
  • Safer Roads– “Design roadway environments to mitigate human mistakes and account for injury tolerances, to encourage safer behaviors, and to facilitate safe travel by the most vulnerable users.”
    • As some of the most vulnerable road users, and road users too young to drive themselves, it is essential to provide safe, connected routes for kids to get to and from school. Safe Routes to School enables communities to invest in street features within two miles of K-12 schools that keep young people safe on their commutes to and from school.
    • These investments can be funded through almost all federal surface transportation funding sources, though most communities use the Transportation Alternatives Program to make Safe Routes to School infrastructure improvements.
    • The Transportation Alternatives Program invests in the street features that enable people to walk, bike, and move throughout their communities safely and comfortably, connecting them to the places they need and want to go. Drawing upon proven safety countermeasures, communities can build sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, paths, and more that minimize potential conflict between cars and kids and their families walking and bicycling.
  • Safer Speeds– “Promote safer speeds in all roadway environments through a combination of thoughtful, context-appropriate roadway design, targeted education and outreach campaigns, and enforcement”
    • While the areas immediately surrounding schools often enjoy slower traffic speeds due to School Zones, communities can and should work to slow speeds throughout their communities as well. High speeds are one of the leading contributors to death on our roadways for people both in and outside of vehicles. Through funding from the Highway Safety Improvement Program, states can invest in traffic calming and other physical infrastructure to slow traffic speeds since and invest in safety campaigns as well.
    • Up to ten percent of a state’s Highway Safety Improvement Program funds can also be used for safety-related campaigns, including Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure.

Do you have examples of integrating Safe Routes to School into a Safe System approach? We would love to hear about it. Let us know at info@saferoutespartnership.org