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. An approach to build Schools on Safe Routes would not only be more intelligent, it would be more effective and far cheaper.
The last time I included a reference to Safe Routes to Schools in an article 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, $8.7 billion were 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.
In the case of Forestview, the School District 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.
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 recommend 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.
A different version of this essay was originally published in 2013. (Top photo by woodleywonderworks)