Key Research Topics

Created by the Safe Routes to School National Partnership
Key Research Topics: January 2011

Contact: Margo Pedroso at

The Safe Routes to School National Partnership has identified several critical areas where additional research is needed. Our meetings with state and federal policy makers and funders have revealed that quantifying these issues will be important for the future of Safe Routes to School.

Quantifying the Economic Benefits and a Cost/Benefit Analysis of Safe Routes to School (SRTS)
Research that codifies the financial benefits of SRTS is greatly needed in the US and would be valuable for advocates as they make their case before policy makers for more funding for SRTS. A cost benefit analysis is also needed, including the creation of jobs, driving costs / busing costs saved, safety savings, and physical activity and air quality benefits. Similar research has already taken place in the UK; however, US policy makers want US research. Sustrans’(UK) Research and Monitoring Unit, working with partners at Bolton University and the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds University, have produced leading guidance into the appraisal of cycling and walking schemes for the Department for Transport. The guidance enables a monetary valuation to be placed on the costs and benefits of projects like new cycling and walking routes and other features such as road crossings. For a full summary and an explanation of the analysis used, please review the Sustrans methodology report.  

Linking Physical Activity to Academic Performance and Attendance
Schools and education partners frequently request research showing the connection between physical activity, academic performance, behavior and attendance. This is particularly important as school budgets are shrinking and schools are focused on test scores. As we seek to increase collaboration between the public health, school and transportation sectors, more research at multiple sites is needed for substantiating ties between walking and bicycling to school and increased levels of academic performance, attendance and behavior. Such research is also necessary to the school siting debate. State and local-level decisions regarding where schools are built have significant impacts on whether homes are located within walking and bicycling distance of schools. And as a result of No Child Left Behind, the main focus of Departments of Education is on academic performance. We need research in the United States that assesses the direct ties that SRTS has to academic performance, attendance and behavior. A recent European study shows that girls who walk or bike to school do better academically:

School Siting Cost Benefit Analysis
A cost-benefit analysis studying school siting is needed, as there is a move across the country to consolidate schools and build them further outside communities, where students cannot bicycle or walk to schools. The percentage of children who live within a mile of school has declined from 41% in 1969 to 31% in 2009. When a school district is making school siting decisions, costs of land and infrastructure are the most obvious considerations, but “hidden” costs such as the impact of a school site on bus transportation costs and traffic congestion are not frequently considered. A cost-benefit analysis that captures the true breadth of costs and benefits deriving from school sites close to children being served versus school sites on the outskirts would be extremely useful for school systems. Such a study would include capital costs, long-term busing costs, infrastructure, maintenance, crashes, congestion, air quality, obesity, etc.

Quantifying Calories Burned and Minutes of Physical Activity through Active Transportation to School
It is difficult to measure the amount of calories burned and minutes of physical activity gained through walking and bicycling to and from school because these figures depend on distance traveled, speed/intensity of travel, and the age and weight of the child. To be able to compare walking and bicycling to school with other health and obesity interventions—such as increasing P.E. classes or cutting back on sugary foods—requires additional research on the average calories burned and minutes of physical activity gained during an active commute to and from school. Such a study could use accelerometers or similar technology.

Assessing Safety Improvements and Mode Shift from SRTS
Past research in the transportation field has demonstrated the safety benefits of infrastructure improvements such as sidewalks and crosswalks. From this, we can presume that similar infrastructure improvements installed through Safe Routes to School will improve safety. The state of California also conducted a statewide evaluation of its state Safe Routes to School funds that found that Safe Routes to School did improve safety and rates of walking and bicycling. However, we need more definitive studies that cross different types of communities to demonstrate the impact of Safe Routes to School on safety and mode shift. The majority of Safe Routes to School studies focus on results from one school or one community. A multi-site evaluation study is needed to help understand the true impact of Safe Routes to School, and how impacts vary across different types of settings, population and geographies.

Delving into the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS)
Data from the 2009 NHTS shows that driving to school has increased from 12.2% in 1969 to 44.3% in 2009. Based on this, an important research need is for the NHTS data to be cross referenced with program evaluation data from communities that are running Safe Routes to School programs. Cross-referencing this data can help make the case that while the number of people driving their children to school may have risen overall at the national level, if compared to the 5% of schools participating in Safe Routes to School nationwide, a reversal of the national trend is possible. Use of data generated through the federal parent surveys and student tallies would demonstrate to Congress that SRTS is an evidence-based solution to changing transportation patterns to school, while accentuating the need for more funding to make SRTS available to a greater percentage of schools nationwide.

Assessing the Impact of Safe Routes to School on Neighborhood Crime
Parents often identify fear of neighborhood crime as one reason why they do not allow children to walk and bicycle to and from school. Safe Routes to School advocates assert that increasing walking and bicycling to school can build social interactions with neighbors, create a sense of community, and reduce crime and fears about crime due to the increased number of people out on the street during the commute to and from school. However, academic research in this area is hard to come by. It would be beneficial to be able to show the broader neighborhood benefits of Safe Routes to School on neighborhood crime.

Determining if Safe Routes to School Behaviors Influence Parents
Some Safe Routes to School programs report anecdotally that getting more children to walk and bicycle can also have an impact on parental behaviors. As a result of their student(s) participating in a SRTS program, parents may walk and bicycle more themselves, and try to avoid the car for short family and personal trips, increasing opportunities for physical activity for the whole family, while reducing traffic congestion. Parents may also walk or bicycle with their children, getting more exercise themselves, impacting their personal health and physical activity levels. However, these reports are anecdotal and there is no research we are aware of examining systematic changes in transportation behavior that could be attributed as further benefits for Safe Routes to School programs.