"See A Need, Fill A Need" - Safe Routes to School Planning in Urban Communities

Kate MoeningWalking to school is not a new concept - up until the 1970s, most schools were located in residential neighborhoods, and communities were built with pedestrian traffic in mind. Unlike many suburban and rural areas, this still holds true in urban communities, where sidewalks are present and homes are clustered around schools. However, safety concerns, changes to infrastructure favoring vehicular traffic, desegregation through busing and social and economic demographic shifts have created barriers to the student pedestrian landscape in urban communities. 

Since 2005, Ohio communities have been incredibly receptive to the Safe Routes to School program, and all state Safe Routes to School funds have been awarded. But by 2010, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) realized large school districts in urban communities had not applied for funding at a rate proportional to their representation in the state, in part because of the four-school limit to funding requests, as well as the scale and complexity of community issues in large districts. To overcome these obstacles, they developed a unique process, the large district school travel plan (large-district STP), grown from the original School Travel Plan guidelines and template developed to assist smaller communities with planning Safe Routes to School implementation.

ODOT’s “Developing School Travel Plans for Large Districts” is a reference for consultants facilitating large-district STP, but is a free resource for anyone seeking information on implementing Safe Routes to School in districts with 15 or more eligible schools. Developed through a research project at the Cincinnati Public School  District in 2012, it is currently being replicated in the Akron, Columbus and Toledo school districts, with a unique level of local support from metropolitan planning organizations, health departments, universities, nonprofits, and city planning, transportation and enforcement.

These urban communities are developing large-district STPs that meet their specific health, infrastructure, social and cultural needs to make it safer for students to walk and bike to school, and are innovating on the Cincinnati model. 

  • In Columbus, Columbus Public Health, Health Impact Partners and Kent State University are incorporating a health impact assessment and perception assessment into the STP development process, to identify health impacts in low-equity neighborhoods. 
  • The Toledo team is making public education and encouragement a priority, developing public service announcements on Safe Routes to School benefits through media partner WGTE, the Fostering Healthy Communities Foundation sponsored by Promedica, the University of Toledo and Mercy hospital.
  • Akron’s team is investigating policy and other avenues to address snow removal in residential neighborhoods that affect the 90 percent of students with no transportation. Walking in the street or on icy sidewalks has contributed to student injuries and lower school attendance.

“See a need, fill a need” is a quote from the movie “Robots”, and it is exactly what ODOT did to address Safe Routes to School implementation challenges in large urban communities. For more information on Safe Routes to School in Ohio, visit their website or contact Julie Walcoff, SRTS Program Manager.  

Kate Moening is the Ohio Advocacy Organizer for the Ohio Safe Routes Network, supported by the Safe Routes Partnership. You can reach her at kate@saferoutespartnership.org, or the Ohio Safe Routes Network website .