Historical Context

Equitable access to safe places to walk and bike is clearly needed in all communities, but historically, organizations and advocates in communities that need safe walking and biking infrastructure the most have not been included in many statewide public policy campaigns. In developing coalitions, it is important to make a concerted effort to include advocates and organizations that focus on social justice and represent specific populations in greatest need. Priority populations reflect those communities that especially need safe places to walk and bike: organizations and advocates who serve and represent people who are African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and Native American; as well as people who live in high poverty urban and high poverty rural areas.

Aligning Priorities with Social Justice Partners

Care is needed in communicating about Safe Routes to School with social justice partners. These groups care about social and political issues affecting specific populations of people. Their core interests may relate to topics that may feel more pressing than safe walking and biking; issues like employment opportunities, affordable housing, police brutality, and quality education. Instead of simply assuming these groups should support Safe Routes to School campaigns, first learn about the needs and priorities of their existing work and communities. As with working with any new partner, ask social justice partners about how they do or don’t see Safe Routes to School priorities aligning with their current work, and then explore, together, the ways that Safe Routes to School programs can advance their interests and how work can be mutually beneficial. Too many times, there’s a focus on the benefits these organizations will bring, rather than a real engagement with the potential of the policy issue to benefit or hurt their causes. By listening instead of driving the conversation, your campaign will learn how to best be an ally to these communities and encourage deeper buy-in and collaborative work as the campaign moves forward.

  • How does Safe Routes to School make this population/community healthier?
  • What concerns are created by installation of walking and biking infrastructure in this neighborhood? (Often gentrification)
  • How does Safe Routes to School make this population safer?
  • How does Safe Routes to School benefit the students in this neighborhood?
  • How will Safe Routes to School enhance connections in the community?
  • How does Safe Routes to School contribute to this community’s economic interest?
  • What are the experiences of these populations while walking and biking and how does that impact their perception and ability of walking and biking in their neighborhood?
  • How can you best learn about issues that impact priority populations?
  • Are there any cultural considerations for walking and biking of which to be aware?

Because social justice partners and populations are disparately impacted by the shortage of safe places to walk and bike in their communities, they should not only be at the table to help plan the campaign, but should also be part of the decision-making process and evaluation of the campaign. These partners know their communities better than anyone and should have input into campaign decision-making around activities and tactics.

Social justice organizations can help to assess the fairness and ability of your proposed campaign actions and policies to address needs of all students regardless of their race, income, or ability. They have the knowledge and skill needed to think critically about how policies at the state level will affect their focus populations. They will be able to identify probable unintended consequences that may come about from proposed policies and will be able to help you better evaluate if policies that are passed have been helpful in these communities after the campaign has ended.

The Need for Safe Routes to School Programs and Funding

As of 2015, more than 17,400 schools and 6.8 million children nationally have benefited from federally funded Safe Routes to School projects and programs.[1] This is a strong foundation upon which to build, but with almost 100,000 public schools and 50 million public school students in this country, it means that less than one-fifth of schools have had any exposure to Safe Routes to School – let alone the level of street improvements and program investments that most schools need.[2] That leaves an enormous unmet need for safer routes to school, and a tremendous opportunity to provide more communities with the benefits of a strong Safe Routes to School initiative.

Decades of design of streets and towns for travel by car, not by foot, mean that most school routes have multiple obstacles to safe walking and bicycling for students. More funding for Safe Routes to School can make a measurable difference in addressing those dangers, while implementing the education and encouragement programs that will enable students to adopt a lifetime of healthy habits. Robust funding would allow Safe Routes to School encouragement and education efforts to reach students throughout the state, support substantial infrastructure change to address the most dangerous walking routes, and enable Safe Routes to School initiatives to be comprehensive and sustainable.

Funding of Safe Routes to School has undergone an ongoing metamorphosis over the years. Each change has brought on its own set of benefits and drawbacks. However, one thing always remains the same: funding levels are far lower than the need. In the following sections, the historic flow of money and roles of various levels of government related to the Safe Routes to School program are discussed.

Historic Flow of Funding

In 2005, decades of federal transportation funding that focused almost exclusively on the movement of cars saw a significant change. A federal Safe Routes to School program with significant funding was established by the 2005 federal transportation bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Through the Safe Routes to School Program, from 2005 to 2012, every state received funding for Safe Routes to School initiatives to grant out to local schools and communities, and each state was required to have a state-level Safe Routes to School coordinator to administer the funds. This program provided more than $1 billion in funding in all states to support infrastructure improvements and programming to make it safer for children to walk and bicycle to and from school.

In June 2012, Congress passed a new federal transportation bill, MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act). This legislation made significant changes to funding for bicycling, walking and Safe Routes to School. The federal Safe Routes to School program was combined with other bicycling and walking programs into the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP). Safe Routes to School projects – both infrastructure projects and education/encouragement projects (non-infrastructure) – are among the specific types of projects eligible for funding under TAP. In 2015, the current transportation law, the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act), was passed, preserving funding for Safe Routes to School, bicycling, and walking for five additional years. The Transportation Alternatives Program became a sub-program of the Surface Transportation Program, a large and fairly flexible pot of federal transportation dollars available to state and regional governments. While the program was renamed to “Surface Transportation Program Set-aside” at the federal level, states and regions are continuing to use the TAP name. Overall, the program still operates in large part as it did under the previous transportation bill, MAP-21.


[1] National Center for Safe Routes to School. (2015). Creating healthier generations: A look at the 10 years of the federal Safe Routes to School program. Retrieved from http://saferoutesinfo.org/sites/default/files/SRTS_10YearReport_Final.pdf.

[2] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of education statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014), Table 105.50. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=84.

Note that the federal program has traditionally only funded Safe Routes to School efforts for K-8 schools, while the 100,000 number represents all K-12 public schools. We include all in this number because we think that Safe Routes to School is essential for all ages.  In addition, note that many of the 33,000 private elementary and secondary schools in the United States also have Safe Routes to School programs.