Safe Routes To School is a government initiative created in 2006 that “assists communities in enabling and encouraging children to safely walk and bike to school.” There are very good reasons for this initiative because for most schools, children walking to school is like rolling the dice with safety. Part of the problem is the nature of the schools themselves and their desire to have frontage on not one, but TWO collector streets for access and visibility.
The primary issue that I see happens to also be one of the fundamental contributors to sprawl, our road classification system. Our classification system in the United States was created in an effort to reduce congestion. It creates a series of loops and lollipops for the “local” streets in subdivisions with typically two options for getting in and out of the subdivision. Instead of the historic grid and network of streets where there were multiple ways to get in and out of a neighborhood, we funnel all of the traffic from the subdivision to two points. These two points are almost always to a “collector” street which by definition, collects all of the traffic from the “local” streets and distributes them to the “arterials“. The “arterials” are our fastest streets which usually are set up on a grid about one mile from each other. From there, our arterials funnel the traffic to another classification, the highway or “expressway“. This funneling of streets creates an increasing amount of traffic as you move up the classification system. On top of that, when you locate the schools along these vehicular sewers (with greater speeds by the way), of course they are unsafe for children. I won’t get into the effects of the classification system when street repairs or a major accident occur on a collector, arterial or highway, but you’ve experienced it if you live adjacent to the suburbs. (Remember it was that time that you were late for something).
I remember when I was growing up (which was not that long ago by the way), walking to my elementary school was very easy and my parents did not think twice about it (great parents by the way that cared very much for the safety of my brother and I). Incredibly enough, I remember walking to Kindergarten with friends (not parents). There was nothing special about the route that I walked to school, through a neighborhood, through multiple intersections and there I was, 5 minutes later, at school. The difference was the high amount of connectivity in the streets, thereby decreasing the amount of traffic on one particular street. My school (still there today by the way) was not located on an arterial or a collector, but surrounded by four local streets. There were not any collectors or arterials abutting the school, just a neighborhood. I would be surprised if there were even any “School Zone” signs (another band-aid) around the school because the streets were not designed to be traveled at excessive speeds.
Was there a need to have “Safe Routes to School” in the 50’s and beforehand? No, our hierarchy of streets were not as “sophisticated” at that point as it is today. Today, we have specialists who are very good at making it faster to get from one place to another. However, they are so good at designing for the automobile that the pedestrian is, more often than not, an after thought so we end up with these band-aid fixes, like safe routes to school. We need to become more cognizant as a civilization of what we are doing to our children in how we plan our cities. As we require, or desire, our schools to be located on arterials and collectors, we should realize that the effects trickle down to our children’s health and safety. Most adults who are designing these systems today should reflect back on their youth and consider if today’s children are given the same opportunities.
Put yourself in the mind of a parent with a child going to elementary or middle school, or maybe you are one, even easier. How many of you would or do feel safe sending your child to their school by walking on a nice 70 degree day? If you said yes, my guess is that you live in a neighborhood constructed before World War II or you live in a neo-traditional neighborhood. Now let’s consider the predominant population who says no, never, not going to happen. You probably either drive your child to school each day, have someone else carpool your child or send them on a bus to school. The health factor comes in because the short amount of time that it takes your child to walk to and from school, may keep your child very healthy because they are getting necessary exercise that they might not otherwise get. When I think back to my childhood, I remember my walks (or bike rides) to and from school with my friends fondly. I had a lot of fun during those moments and gained a lot of independence, and more often than not it took me a lot longer than 5 minutes because I would find something fun to do on the way. My daughter just got out of school for the summer, but I enjoyed walking my daughter to and from school. It is a great chance to have a conversation with her, enjoy some fresh air and believe it or not, but it was actually much faster than driving.
I would like to see our governments think about what they are doing when they plan for growth and speed of our vehicles. Is it more important to get from one place to another swiftly or is our civilizations health and safety more important? Until our society can consider how much we are hurting ourselves with our road classification systems, we are unfortunately going to have more auto accidents, higher obesity rates and greater risks for diabetes.