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How about Schools on Safe Routes?

Safe Routes to School is a very popular federal program designed to make is easier for students to walk and bike to school. The amount spent on it, however, is a tiny fraction of what we spend each year building brand new schools. A approach to build Schools on Safe Routes would not only be more intelligent, it would be more effective and far cheaper.

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The last time I included a reference to Safe Routes to Schools in a blog post I was inundated with email and comments extolling the virtues of this federal program. Even my own cousin -- a nice guy who is a teacher here in Minnesota -- sent me a Facebook message telling me all the good the program accomplishes. So I know already before I venture out into this topic I am inviting the scorn of many. Please be patient with me.

According to the the National Center on Safe Routes to School, the purpose of the program is:

...to improve safety on walking and bicycling routes to school and to encourage children and families to travel between home and school using these modes.

This is a laudable goal. I'm not an expert in child health by any means, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb by stating that we have a child obesity problem in this country. Kids are getting diabetes in record numbers and having other health issues that a sedentary lifestyle perpetuates. That walking and biking are not part of the daily routine as it was growing up for many reading this does not feel like a coincidence. Even with other complicating factors, more options for biking and walking can only be a good thing. Through a Strong Towns prism, the added resiliency of alternatives gives the city / neighborhood / district added security in a volatile world.

Where my concern lies is not in the goal but in our approach to meeting it. Today we spend money to study and then, in some cases, to retrofit existing school zones to accommodate bikers and walkers. There is an entire pyramid of bureaucracy set up around implementing the program, from actual government employees down through a chain of consultants and local implementation managers. I've interacted with all layers of this system in all manner of community and one thing has struck me as notable:

I've never seen one of these people involved when a new school location is being determined.

This post is going to rhyme a little bit with one of my prior posts on car seats. There is no end to the advocates, working directly with money from Washington or with incentives from car seat manufacturers, reminding parents of the need to properly use a car seat. You can get a free car seat here in my area just by going to a class (we didn't go that route, but I know others that did). Nowhere -- and I mean NOWHERE -- do any of these advocates recommend driving less. This is all despite the fact that government car seat standards only require testing at crashes up to 30 mph! Auto accidents are the leading cause of death among children, yet the message from child advocates is clear: drive all you want, just use a car seat.

We spend tens of millions each year (a ridiculously small sum given the size of the task) in an attempt to retrofit schools to be walkable. Would it not be far more effective to simply locate new schools in areas that are already "safe"? Of course it would be, so why is nobody advocating for this?

According to the American Clearinghouse on Educational Facilities, there was $8.7 billion spent constructing new schools in 2010. That does not include renovations ($2.8 billion) or additions ($3.1 billion). That's an enormous number of new schools. The amount that will someday be spent retrofitting them to be "safe" is paltry in comparison.

And I don't believe I'm going out on a limb to suggest that nearly all of these new schools were of a flavor consistent with our two newest local schools, Forestview and Eagleview. Note in the following photos how these schools are located, adjacent to high speed roadways and remote from any students. Whatever the criteria used to make these decisions, there is no way it included an evaluation of making the facility safe for children to access.

Forestview in Baxter, MN. Photo from Google Earth.

Eagleview in Breezy Point, MN. Photo from Google Earth.

In the case of Forestview, the School District recently had a report prepared by a consultant giving them advice and recommendations consistent with the Safe Routes to School approach. Note that, because of the District's policy favoring families who have chosen to live more remotely from town (they get picked up and bused in while children whose families live within a mile must walk), children are expected to cross a County State Aid Highway to reach the school. The report notes -- without apparently making the connection -- that parent pick-up and drop-off is creating problem and additional improvements are needed to handle the congestion.

And I don't care how many flashing lights they make at the signalized intersection, there is no way the average parent is ever going to let their child cross this highway, let alone walk the trail in this ditch on a chilly January morning.

CSAH 48 in Baxter, MN. Image from Google Earth.

I'm continuously reminded of Carlson's Law:

In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

What prevents us from building schools on safe routes? Nothing.

Does it make far more sense that the billions spent annually on new schools be spent in neighborhoods that are already safe for children, neighborhoods where children are actually located? Of course it does.

Will anyone currently in the pipeline of funding, getting paid to advocate on behalf of Safe Routes to School, stand up and address this apparent low hanging fruit? Will any of them demand recommend suggest that, instead of making this problem dramatically worse each year, the billions spent on new schools be redirected consistent with the Safe Routes to Schools values?

I can't help but think that if we weren't subsidizing both the left hand and the right hand in this equation that our outcome, while perhaps more chaotic, would be a lot smarter than what we are now doing.


I'm going to continue this conversation a little later this morning with some bonus material over at the Strong Towns Network.



If you'd like more from Chuck Marohn, you should really get a copy of his recent book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on thr Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the conversation on how to make yours a strong town.

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Reader Comments (18)

Interesting post on a similar tone over at streets.mn : http://www.streets.mn/2013/01/30/kids-carpools-walking-fear/

Sheds some honest light on some of the changes that have driven parents to drive children to school, and not in large numbers per vehicle as once was the case. This includes a deepening fear of letting children walk to school, even if the neighborhood IS walkable or close to the school.

I'll posit a question. What was the cost analysis between renovating/upgrading schools that existed in walkable neighborhoods before new ones were built in the nether regions (often under the guise that new home developments would eventually surround them and a portion of students could then walk - a dumb assumption)? And not just retrofit the existing building, but also acquiring land adjacent or nearby to accommodate baseball/football/etc fields for school sports and activities (marching band is near and dear to my heart. but this country has seen an increase in participation and number of sports participated in, requiring space). I'm not saying things couldn't be done smarter. In Iowa City, City High (not West) uses a public park about 4 blocks away for their baseball and softball diamonds. Minneapolis Southwest's football field is 2-3 blocks away in a city park.

But I'd be interested to see the argument for retrofit cost vs building new as well as the justification for how these schools basically became "towers in a park" but for a decent reason (at least in premise). My guess is that if we stopped wasting local money on the unproductive infrastructure (and subsidies), we'd have enough money to afford the (debatable) more expensive retrofits of neighborhood schools to meet the local needs.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Safe Routes to School, while well-intentioned, is nothing more than a band aid solution. The real problem is the disconnect between school site selection and land use planning. In Florida, where I currently reside, school districts are completely exempt from local land use laws. While planners can recommend that school site selection be coordinated with development, the local school board has no obligation to comply. The National Trust for Historic Preservation tackled this issue about a decade ago in their quest to preserve historic neighborhood schools. Google "Why Johnny Can't Walk to School" if you haven't already read it.

Making matters worse, school catchment zones are gerrymandered such that they have little or no relationship to neighborhood form. So even if your home is located near a school in the middle of a walkable neighborhood, there is no guarantee that you'll be assigned to that school district.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMontag

Sadly, even when schools are located in neighborhoods, they still aren't always walkable. We have at least 3 elementary schools in our community located within or adjacent to neighborhoods where the existing neighborhoods don't have sidewalks to allow students to walk to the school. Unfortunately, the people who loved to our community in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were moving away from the big, bad city and equated sidewalks with cities so they built subdivisions without them.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteraim

I love this post and especially the title "How about schools on safe routes?". Brilliant!

During community master plan processes, I have attempted to have this dialog with the school districts. The argument of school buses and the amount of "traffic" for parents always trumps the option of walking.

It's sad that we value vehicular speed over safety. I went into this topic a little deeper a couple years ago along the same idea: http://urbanlandscapes.info/2010/05/24/safe-routes-to-school-a-band-aid-for-the-last-60-years-of-planning-around-the-vehicle/

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Olson

Mpls Public Schools and city were soliciting ideas for Safe Routes To School grants a few months back, and this was my idea:


Thanks for this newsletter, and I'm glad to see MnDOT, the city, and school district looking for ways to improve the walkability around our schools.

Wouldn't the safest route to school be the shortest route to school? It seems to me like Minneapolis has a great framework to create safe routes to school, a grid of streets with good sidewalks. It would make sense to put schools in this grid then assign attendance in a way that minimizes walking/biking distance for students to reach their school. This would also save money in transportation costs.

We're already doing better than the suburbs, without even trying. We just need to keep up our natural urban placemaking style that has served Minneapolis well for a century and a half, maintaining special vigilance that we do not mistakenly turn our streets into roads.

My wife and I do not have children (yet) but someday we will be thinking about our family, where our future children should go to school, and how they can get there. My wife, a PHN, notes that promoting vehicular safety is a facet of public health but in reality it is best to reduce the number of miles someone needs to travel by car to reduce the likelihood of something bad happening. All across our city, it would save precious district dollars, increase public health, and ensure safe routes to school if we minimized the distance between students and their schools.

We live less than two blocks away from a beautiful vacant building with a brick exterior and large windows, the old Northrop elementary school after which our neighborhood was named. The best option for our future children would be to have a quality neighborhood school that's a two block walk away, as it would be for many of the young families in our neighborhood.

Again, we're so far ahead of the school transportation realities in places that were created during the suburban experiment. Yet, maybe there's a grant opportunity that would study and lead to reduced distances between students and their schools, thereby greatly increasing safe routes to schools all across our city.

Thanks for considering this!

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Steele

Fantastic perspective shift again, Chuck.

Though I am amazed you folks are still building schools. It has been decades since I lived in a place that was building schools. Around here, schools are being closed for lack of enrollment.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRuben

Great post, and the schools you mentioned are great examples of problems that even a Safe Routes to School program really can't fix--there's no way you're going to make it safe for even a small minority of children to get to those schools by foot or by bike.

In cases like those above, this is just poor planning. I'm sure you'll also agree, however, that there are other cases where "Schools on Safe Routes" is basically impossible. That is, many cities literally don't have ANYWHERE you could place a school that would be safe for walking or biking without major road network renovations. Communities that haven't embraced other transportation options whatsoever, so that there really aren't any good options for school placement, just less bad ones.

Even in those cases, however, we can strive to avoid placing our schools in the middle of nowhere, so that any necessary changes to improve walk/bike-ability aren't prohibitively expensive and/or impossible. In that respect the Schools on Safe Routes approach is still valuable.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShane Phillips

Maybe we should design more smaller school buildings and campuses so they wouldn't have to acquire the giant tracts of land way out. Then they could fit into leftover tracts better and the peak automobile flows would be less and travel distances lower. It might even be a better social environment for the children...

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

I am a Safe Routes to School Coordinator (district level) who largely agrees with your post.

There are four situations:
1. New schools on greenfields. Districts make decisions about new school locations primarily on land cost, and that is why greenfields get schools (and the same reason developers want to go there). However, land ends up being a small part of the overall school cost, and an even smaller part when ongoing expenses are considered. I think that this old style siting practice, which some districts and states have moved away from, is criminal. Districts also prefer large schools that serve a larger area because there are more students to spread out administrative overhead costs. Districts like the idea of one principal for a 1000 students rather than one principal for 500 students. Building a school that students cannot walk and bike to is a violation of their rights.

2. Reconstructed campuses: When a major reconstruction is undertaken, some improvements to flow can be made, to make walking and bike more welcoming, and safer, and driving less welcoming. Of course this only impacts the campus and immediately surrounding streets.

3. Existing schools that are not walkable or bikeable: Sometimes the neighborhood was mis-designed to begin with, and is very hard to fix. Sometimes the design was not bad, but the arterials have been expanded and sped up so that they are no longer safe to cross. If speeds can be reduced, and more frequent crossings with shorter signal timing put in, then it may be worth investing money to make the neighborhood walkable again. But it is true that we will never have enough money to fix everything (that money has gone into the pockets of developers and politicians), so we have to prioritize and pick the projects with the highest safety and numbers return.

4. Existing schools being closed: This is what is going on in many suburban and some urban areas, as populations and age distributions change. The district will prefer to close older and smaller and underperforming schools, and shift students to newer and bigger and higher performing schools. This is going on where I live, Sacramento, California. This change will remove a number of schools that were walkable and bikeable. Of course these could theoretically be reopened later when population shifts again, but I doubt that they will be.

I think each of these situations should be considered separately. Safe Routes to School, the federal program, is a solution to some of them, but not all. A safe routes approach, as you have suggested, has application to all of them.

The bottom line, for me, is: "Every student has a right to safely walk or bike to school."

Thank you for your ability and willingness to challenge the conventional mindset.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan Allison

A horrible example of placing a new school:


This is the new school built in St. Joseph, MN. Before I go any further, here is the old school:


The new school is bigger, and nicer. It uses geothermal heating, was built at an appropriate size but with designed in expansion capabilities, and all the latest technology. But, as you can see, it is MILES from town. There is (now) a sidewalk that leads out there, but it is along a fairly busy highway, even being right on the highway in town. There is no growth in that part of town, and no reason to think there will be. From my experience living/going to school there, that is the road people take when they've had too much to drink in St. Cloud and need the back way home.

My understanding (I was in architecture and urban planning classes at St. John's/St. Ben's at the time this school was built) is that it was sited as such because new schools in MN need 50 some acres of land, legally. Someone can fact check that if they want. I just wanted to share another lovely example. Here, also, is the high school in my current town, Mason City, IA:


Not perfect, but when taken in to consideration with the fact that grades below 6 are all neighborhood schools, it is a sign that not all schools are terrible and desolate.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarty

YES. I love the Safe Routes program; I think it's great. But you're right, it's a band-aid. It seems that, like so many things in our government, this is a "silos" issues. Public health is separated from transportation is separated from education is separated from agriculture, etc. If we were considering each of these things in context, these problems would be obvious and a whole lot easier to address.

I think that schools are one of the worst in this regard, because they're accountable to no-one other than themselves. They're exempt from abiding by land-use plans in siting schools, so you can end up with this scenario even if a city has a solid plan in place. I'm looking forward to more discussion on this.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMeika

"Safe Routes to School is a very popular federal program..."

Correction: Safe Routes to School WAS a very popular federal program until it was de-funded under MAP-21.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDennis

FYI -- I received a very nice email from the director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, Deb Hubsmith. She pointed me to a resource page that -- while not front and center -- does address the issues I've raised here. Very valuable information.


I'm very grateful that she would take the time to send that information and consider it very classy that she has done so.

While I'm critical of our national approach on this issue and would like a nation more obsessed with preventing harm rather than one blase towards causing harm but then, after the fact, interested in (kindof) addressing it, I do appreciate the efforts of those working in the trenches on this. I'm also glad to see that, while not front and center, the organization has at least given some thought to prevention.

I'd love to support the elevation of the prevention approach to critical/urgent status, which I think is consistent with the SRTS concept and the other actions currently being taken in the program.

Kudos to Deb Hubsmith.

February 6, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Right on as usual, Chuck. Love the Carlson's Law quote. First I'd seen it.

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTracy Gayton

Hey, Chuck!

Two elementary schools in my town, Menlo Park, California, illustrate your point very well. My son's school, Oak Knoll Elementary, is tucked away on a side street, and more than 50% of kids walk or bike there. The other school, Encinal Elementary, is on the corner of two fairly busy streets, and less than 20% of kids walk or bike there.

Since these two schools' populations are practically identical, it's pretty clear to me that the difference is mostly attributable to setting.

However, I would argue that parents can play an important role in teaching their kids how to roam independently. Here's one article (among many) that I've written about this:

How a Kid Masters His Neighborhood

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike Lanza

After reading two articles in Bicycling Magazine, "Why Johnny Can't Ride,' and "Riding Is My Ritalin," I'm wondering if poor school placement, incomplete streets, and "weak towns" in general have contributed to the ADHD explosion.


February 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZ Fechten

Thanks Mike Lanza. Love your work and thought of you as I was thinking about this issue.

February 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Thank you for bringing up what we in the Safe Routes to School world call the "800-pound gorilla in the room"- school siting! (link below)  This issue is gaining increasing attention among Safe Routes to School advocates and school districts. We at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership care about this issue. It is complicated but critical to tackle it together. Our conversations focus on getting school districts to:
1. Make location decisions based on things like long-term maintenance costs, traffic congestion, physical activity, proximity to residences, etc. instead of short-term fiscal survival. It is key that we overcome the challenge of minimum acreage requirements for school siting.
2. Integrate school siting into their community's general planning efforts.
3. Have enough funding to keep the neighborhood, or community-centered, school instead of feeling that they have to consolidate into a mega-school in order to stretch what little funds they have (even though consolidation ends up costing more in the long run in many cases).
4. Provide alternative solutions to closing schools due to decreasing enrollment and the unwillingness of local communities and decision makers to protect their nearby school.
5. Educate parents about the health and community benefits of walking and biking to school, and ease concerns about low-risk dangers that many parents cite as reasons for not wanting to walk or bike. 
I recommend reading Helping Johnny Walk to School (link below) a guide to the challenges and solutions of community-centered schools.
Building Schools on Safe Routes is a great dream! But there are very, very, very few safe routes out there to build on - yet. Cars and trucks dominate much of America's public spaces. Cars and trucks hit and kill kids. Like you stated in your post, parents will not let their kids cross or walk along wide high-speed streets, even with a stoplight or bike lane. 
Safe Routes to School programs try to find routes that don't require crossing 5 lane arterials - but if they can't, they try to 'fix' the problem. Or they change local policies so that streets are built for everyone in the first place, rather than having to retrofit with Safe Routes to School funds later - Complete Streets (link below).
Even if the school is built on safe routes, they won’t necessarily come. Parents may have other reasons to not let their kids walk or bike to school, often reasons that have nothing to do with the safety of the built environment. Safe Routes to School programs provide a fun, compelling way to change parental behavior and attitudes. This goes well beyond street infrastructure.
Note that currently there is not a federal Safe Routes to School program; it is now an eligible category in the tiny Transportation Alternatives program, and must fight over crumbs with other non-auto programs and projects. Many states and local communities are doing their best to keep the program alive, though, because it is proven to increase physical activity and safety. A major new Danish study (link below) on the link between exercise and academic performance shows that it even helps students concentrate better in school! Beyond transportation, Safe Routes to School will save much, much more money for Americans than it costs in the long run, when you factor in the huge health benefits and lives saved from walking and bicycling to school and other places.
The National Partnership calls on advocates, school districts, elected officials and community members to work together with the strong towns movement on the school siting issue. Galvanizing people who understand the importance of this issue will help us retain our public schools within the heart of communities, thus helping to preserve the vitality of the surrounding neighborhood, spur economic growth and encourage a healthier population.
Robert Ping
Technical Assistance Director
Safe Routes to School National Partnership

> http://www.saferoutespartnership.org/state/bestpractices/schoolsiting
> http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/saving-a-place/historic-schools/helping-johnny-walk-to-school/helping-johnny-walk-to-school.pdf
> http://www.saferoutespartnership.org/state/bestpractices/completestreets
> http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/02/kids-who-walk-or-bike-school-concentrate-better-study-shows/4585/

February 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Ping

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