Jump Starting Complete Streets: Focusing on Kids (and others) When Progress Slows

Every street should be safe for walking and bicycling.  This is an essential component of the Complete Streets design philosophy that has emerged in recent years as the “new normal” for roads – although the gap between policy and practice often remains wide.   Because the core issue is mobility, Advocates compliment this “everywhere for everyone” approach with concerted efforts to create seamless networks of sidewalks and low-traffic-stress routes (paths and protected bike lanes or cycle tracks) along major “desire lines” connecting most residential areas with most schools, parks, recreational, shopping, and work areas.   Or at least a set of “key routes” across town.   Many Advocacy groups put considerable effort into sketching out these networks and routes – trying to combine directness with safety, beauty with speed, ubiquity with practicality.  To paraphrase a slogan from the Greenway Links Initiative I’ve been working on in the Metro Area:  Big enough to be inspiring, simple enough to be understandable.

However, the difficulty of getting cities to adopt the proactive, grand vision approach to transportation planning and road maintenance required for the creation of such networks forces most Advocacy groups to fall back on pragmatism.   Every time a street is repaved or restriped; every time a developer wants a curb cut; every time state or federal transportation funds become available – grab the opportunity to push for another, often disconnected stretch of improved sidewalks, redone crosswalks and intersections, bike lanes (regular or protected) or paths.   Having those draft network and key route maps helps focus Advocates efforts on those locations that will make the biggest contribution towards the ultimate goal.  But the process is still rather haphazard, catch-as-can, ending up feeling rather incoherent.  And sometimes things go nowhere.



When city-wide Complete Streets feels too unfocused and networks too challenging, focusing on the mobility needs of specific groups may still be a way to catch a city’s attention, to mobilize its political will, to begin thinking proactively while not forcing the overworked staff to create a full-fledged Master Plan.  It’s particularly good to focus on the street improvements needed by groups that the public, media, and city administration find appealing.  Safe Routes for Seniors.  Safe Access to Health Care.  Safe Routes To Transit.  And Safe Routes to School.

Barney Frank once quipped that America only seems to care about children from conception to birth.   But protecting kids – even obnoxious teenagers – does have political appeal.  This is not a replacement either for opportunism or networks, both of which serve commuters and other adults and are an essential part of Advocates insistence that active transportation should be a central theme of mobility planning for all.   But it is a way to fill in gaps in the town’s infrastructure, attract new allies, and gain positive media attention.  It might also be a way to generate momentum when nothing else seems to be working.

The reasons to encourage kids to walk and bike to school are well known – from “arriving ready to learn” by letting off physical steam, to fewer traffic congestion (and accidents), to improved personal health, and reduced bussing costs.   The Safe Routes To School Partnership points out that “Walking one mile to and from school each day is two-thirds of the recommended sixty minutes of physical activity a day….Eliminating one bus route, based on average per-pupil expenditure (an average of $854 per child transported per year) and average number of pupils per bus, would save a school district approximately $45,000 per year.”

In 2009, according to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, only about a third of the students between kindergarten and 8th grade who lived within a mile of school walked or biked, down from nearly 90% in 1969.  Most states, including Massachusetts, let local school boards decide how far away from school a well-bodied child has to live to be eligible for free motorized transportation services, although something between one and two miles is generally taken as a “reasonable walking distance” depending on the child’s age and the urban-to-rural nature of the community.  (In the United Kingdom, the “statutory walking distance” for children aged 8 or less is 2 miles, for older kids it’s 3 miles.)  But even within those distances, kids who don’t get the bus are increasingly driven, contributing to the unsafe traffic situation that got parents worried in the first place.  Parents driving their students to school compriseup to 25 percent of morning rush hour traffic and motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for school-age children.

Of course, not every school is a good candidate for a Safe Routes to School (SR2S) program.  I recently participated in a hiring process to select a Safe Routes To School program manager for the Boston Public Schools.  “How would you prioritize which of our 57 elementary schools to start working with?” was one of the questions and it forced me, too, to think about the combination of physical, social, and political realities that make a school a good choice.


The first cut is shaped by a school-to-school comparison of the number and percentage of students living within walking or bicycling distance versus the number and percentage that are regularly coming by car.  Priority should go to those schools with the largest  percentage of not-yet but potential walkers and cyclists.   A related criteria is the absolute number of children involved – below some threshold of potential participants it isn’t worth the investment.

The second cut is based on the willingness of the school’s administrative, instructional, and parent leadership as well as the municipal administration to take on a SR2S challenge.  Without sustainable capacity at the school level the program will fail.  Is the principal open – even better, enthusiastic – about the benefits of the program?  Are teachers willing to spend class time talking it up?  Is there an active Wellness Council (required by federal law in every school) and/or parents organization?  Is the Mayor, Transportation Director, and Police Chief willing to put some energy into making things happen? Does the program have champions among the faculty, parents, or politicians? And finally, a touchy issue: what is the history of neighborhood crime and residential fear?

These issues of leadership interest and public acceptance are key to the first three of the “5 Es” that makes up a successful program: Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, and Evaluation.  Education includes introducing the program in school assemblies, in Physical Education and academic classes, and After School sessions.  It includes sending materials home, having kids draw maps of possible sites, teaching safe street crossing and bicycle riding skills, and maybe even “field trips” and “bicycle rodeos” to practice those skills.  Encouragement starts with celebration of successful “walk/bike” days, providing incentives from snacks upon arrival to a headstart on end-of-day release, and organizing a range of supportive activity – walking school buses, bike convoys, forbidding school front drop-off (except for the disabled) and setting up a bus and car drop-off spot at least ¼ mile away from the school entrance.  And enforcement means positioning kid and adult crossing guards and police officers at strategic locations to both prevent unsafe behaviors among the  students and, more importantly, by car drivers – particularly to enforce school zone speed limits and no-turning rules.

It is only after the degree of benefit and the political will issues are examined that it’s worth looking into physical feasibility, the basis for the usually more administratively complicated, potentially expensive, and slower-to-happen but most important fourth E:  Engineering.  Can the amount of secure and covered bicycle parking spaces be significantly increased?  How much can be done with low cost paint, planters, signs, and temporary asphalt ramps?  What can be done through the towns regular maintenance program, which usually covers both repaving and repainting as well as some sidewalk repairs?  What will have to wait for full-depth reconstruction that allows moving curbs, creating curb cuts, widening or creating sidewalks and paved paths, even building overpasses or tunnels?  Are there any show-stoppers that simply make certain routes impossible?

Engineering ideas should be based on careful research.   What is the local Walk Score and Bike Score – a numerical measure of the area’s walkability and bikeability?  How many traffic accidents and injuries have happened in the area over the past several years?  Do nearby roads have unusually high traffic volumes?  Are there gaps in the sidewalks or major blockages – such as a highway or railroad — cutting across the catchment area?  And this provides the baseline for Evaluation:  how many more kids are walking or biking?  How many fewer accidents or traffic jams occur?  Do teachers notice a difference?

If you are really lucky, the improvements needed to get kids to a school overlap with those needed to close some gaps in the city-wide network – or to at least secure another segment in a desire-line route.

There are lots of excellent guides on how to organize and run a Safe Routes to Schools Program.  WalkBoston’s excellent step-by-step workbook focuses on walking; the Safe Routes To School Information Center’s materials have a broader focus; the MassDOT’s Statewide Safe Routes to School program has information particular to our state.  But even the best seeds will die if sown on unfertile ground.  Pick your battles for the best chance of success and the largest impact.


The biggest problem with most SR2S programs is that they are simply one-day events.  It’s good to let kids and parents experience how easy and joyful it is to not use the car.  But such one-off activities have little long-term impact.   Much better are a regular series of events, such as the Green Streets Initiative’s Walk/Bike Days for schools and workplaces that happen the last Friday of every month from spring through fall.   Better are the weekly events, such as the Walking Wednesdays at Egremont Elementary in Pittsfield, the Fairhaven Bike Train,  and best of all are (snow-hidden sidewalk clearance permitting) daily programs such as Fall River’s Letourneau and Doran School’s  Walking School Bus and Chelsea’s Walking School Bus.

Mere encouragement is not enough to make a program work, even at the most hopeful locations.  While big changes, from new traffic lights to new bridges may be on your wish list, it is possible to create a much more friendly and inviting environment with low-cost, simple improvements.  More bike parking.  Painting crosswalks.  Requiring cars to drop off non-disabled students further away from the school entrance. Relocating a crossing guard or police officer.  Having the Principal or a teacher or parent volunteers stand outside to greet arriving walkers and cyclists.  Having parents lead a “walking school bus” or “bicycle parade” to the school from a gathering point.

Ultimately, increased active transportation requires an appropriate transportation infrastructure.  One study examined bicycle use by school children in new communities with varying levels of bicycle paths and found that as paths increased so did school children’s use of them. Where no paths were provided about 22 percent of school children walked or biked to school, but with one or two paths children’s use rose to 29 percent and 49 percent, respectively.  (Lansing, J. B., R. W. Marans, and R. B. Zehner. Planned Residential Environments. Bureau of Public Roads, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1970.)


In these tax-phobic cutback days, school budgets are tight and getting worse.  Busing is an enormous and non-learning-enhancing expense.  In Boston and other large cities, busing is being also drastically cut back in an effort to recreate more neighborhood schools.  (Although you wouldn’t know from the media that nearly half of all Boston students at most schools were from the neighborhood even before the recent reassignments.)

Making it easier to walk or bike to school is not the same thing as creating a city-wide network that allows anyone to get from anywhere to anywhere else without using a car.  Increasing the active transportation mode share requires explicitly serving the needs of non-car commuters as well as recreational walkers, runners, and cyclists.  Still, focusing on children not only helps change the general climate about the value of non-motorized accommodations, not only gets the next generation used to the idea and pleasure of burning calories instead of carbon, it also provides an  opportunity to change at least some of our roads.   And the good news is that a little progress makes a big difference:  a mere 5% increase in a neighborhood’s walkability and bikeability reduces vehicle miles traveled by 6%!


Thanks to Rebecca Cyr  and Jill Carter for feedback on earlier drafts.


Take our website survey!