Safe routes to school examined: How structural changes around schools affect children’s mobility and safety

The problem. In 1969, more than 40 percent of U.S. schoolchildren ages 5 to 18 walked or bicycled to school. By 2009, this number had declined to 12.7 percent. A 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigating why more children do not walk to school found traffic safety to be the second most common barrier, after distance to school.

In 1999, California became the first state to approve legislation creating a Safe Routes to School program (SR2S). Eight years later, in 2007, legislative bill AB 57 extended the program indefinitely with funding provided from the State Highway Account at an annual amount of $24.25 million. Projects are identified through a statewide competition and require a 10 percent local match. They support engineering modifications near schools, such as new traffic lights, bike lanes, pathways, and sidewalks in the vicinity of schools serving K–12 students with the goal of making walking and biking easier and safer for children.

David Ragland, Director of the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center (SafeTREC) at the University of California, Berkeley, led the research team studying the long-term impact of the improvements on walking and bicycling levels and on safety.

Finding something relevant to do. Ragland says he has always been curious about “why people do what they do.” He followed this interest by studying psychology, earning an undergraduate degree at University of Oregon, Eugene, in 1965, followed by a doctorate at State University of New York, Buffalo, in 1976. As he was completing his graduate studies, Ragland began to think that traditional psychological research was just too limited for him. “I wanted to apply methods I had learned to something that was relevant to society,” he says.

Happily, Ragland’s first job at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health allowed him to apply his knowledge of psychology to preventing disease and promoting health. At NIH, he studied behavioral approaches to treating high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases—work he would continue to pursue as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1980, Ragland also earned a Master of Public Health degree from UC Berkeley.

“I was attracted by the public health/epidemiologic approach of looking at health and disease in populations, as opposed to individuals,” he says. “The population approach is very powerful in being able to identify factors related to health and disease.”

One of Ragland’s early long-term studies analyzed the stress levels and general health of bus drivers working for MUNI, the San Francisco Municipal Railway, who as a group suffered disproportionately from high blood pressure, skeletal disorders, and obesity. As part of that work, in the late 1980s, Ragland also analyzed data about collisions involving MUNI transit vehicles and non-transit vehicles.

That analysis, published in 1992, was enough to set the course for the rest of his career. When the School of Public Health at Berkeley joined an injury prevention group to offer courses in injury epidemiology and traffic safety, “I was the only one in the school who had done anything on injury,” Ragland recalls. “And they asked me to teach the courses.”

Over the next few years, Ragland recruited a number of UC Berkeley students to help carry out research on injury and safety issues. In 2000, he founded the UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center, since renamed SafeTREC, which is affiliated with the university’s School of Public Health and the Institute of Transportation Studies. There, Ragland conducts data and policy analysis for state and federal transportation agencies.

Do Safe Routes to School engineering improvements protect schoolchildren? In 2006–2007, Ragland and his team — which includes Jill Cooper, MSW, the Center’s associate director, and Swati Pande, MS, an analyst — conducted an evaluation of California’s Safe Routes to School program.

The team’s 2007 study of the impact of the program suggested that a decreased rate of injury — when factoring in the increases in the number of children walking and biking — and a net benefit in terms of safety for affected students. Other suggested safety benefits included reductions in near misses, increased perceptions of safety, less vehicle traffic, and improved driver and pedestrian behavior.

Do those improvements endure over time? Ragland and others wanted to know if these benefits lasted and whether the program continued to be a good investment of scarce transportation safety dollars. In 2011, Ragland’s team secured an RWJF Active Living Research grant to answer that question. See the Program Results Report on Active Living Research for more information on the program.

The team assessed the long-term impact on safety around schools that had implemented Safe Routes to School-funded infrastructure; it was called “the safety study.” At the same time, the researchers looked at the impact of the improvements on levels of walking and bicycling activity around the schools—“the mobility study.” Forty-seven schools throughout California were included in the safety study, and nine schools from Southern California were included in the mobility study.

Refining the methodology. Previous studies of the impact on safety of Safe Routes to School had looked at injuries within an entire school catchment area. This study aimed to be much more precise. It compared the numbers of injury collisions that occurred within 250 feet of an engineering change with injury collisions occurring beyond 250 feet of the change but within a quarter mile of the school.

The study found that safety of pedestrians increased within 250 feet of an infrastructure improvement, such as a sidewalk, and that living within 250 feet of an infrastructure improvement increased the probability that a child walked to school. Ragland noted that the difference was significant for pedestrians or bicyclists of all ages, but did not reach significance for pedestrians or cyclists ages 5 to 18.

Parents surveyed for the study were quick to note that there were still barriers to their children walking to school in terms of distance, built environment, and risk. To encourage walking, other improvements beyond infrastructure were important — such as showing the positive effects of walking, parents said.

Their list included educational activities that encourage walking and biking and adult supervision of children, such as walking school buses (groups of students who walk to school together, along with a parent or parents), crossing guards, and higher levels of enforcement.

An article about the study—“Ten Years Later: Examining the Long-Term Impact of the California Safe Routes to School Program”—has been accepted for publication in Transportation Research Record, and is expected to appear in mid-2014; a version presented at the Transportation Research Board meeting is available online.

Considering the human factors. In the fall of 2013, Ragland and his team got a sobering reminder of the threats to safe school commutes when a 12-year-old boy was hit and killed while riding his bicycle in front of his middle school in rural Contra Costa County in California.

“That particular road was too busy and the shoulder was very narrow, which forced vehicles and bikes closer together,” Ragland says. The boy was also one of the few who rode his bike to school along that highway, an article in the Contra Costa Times reported. “The danger of injury is higher for cyclists if there are fewer of them,” Ragland says. “If there are few pedestrians or bicyclists, then the drivers have a lower expectation of encountering one, and are less likely to perceive them and react accordingly.”

The incident highlighted the importance of looking at human factors as well as engineering when considering interventions to improve safety and mobility. “Human behavior is one of the main contributing factors to traffic crashes,” Ragland says, “and that includes pedestrians and bicyclists. They can make mistakes also.”

The state and the country need to develop a “traffic safety culture,” Ragland believes, “and psychology has a major role to play in increasing positive road user behavior. It has probably been underutilized given that the primary emphasis until a few years ago has been on engineering.”

For Ragland and his team, mobility and safety are tied together inextricably.

“For us it is almost a mantra. If we are going to ask people to walk and bike for the sake of their health, and for the sake of the planet, it is our simultaneous obligation to make it safe.”

RWJF perspective. Active Living Research is a $31 million program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Research findings are used to help inform policy, the design of the built environment, and other factors necessary to re-engineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday life. Over the past few years, the program has focused on reversing the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in the lower-income and racial/ethnic minority communities in which childhood obesity levels are highest and rising fastest.

In a recent analysis, James F. Sallis, Active Living Research program director [and member of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) External Scientific Panel], documents dramatic growth in research to identify policy and environmental factors and interventions affecting physical activity at the population level and in high-risk populations following the program’s launch in 2000.

Active Living Research seeks to translate actionable research findings into policy and practice change as rapidly as possible. “The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders in many sectors that our everyday physical activity levels depend on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity. In addition, a growing number of urban planners and transportation policy makers recognize that community design is critical for health,” says [NCCOR member] C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.

“For instance,” she adds, “if we find out that adding bike paths and sidewalks or walk-to-school programs significantly increases physical activity, we want to get this information out to local residents, decision and policy makers as quickly and effectively as possible, so they can start using it.”

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