HomeAbout the IssueUnderstanding the Landscape

Understanding the Landscape

The Policy & Transportation Funding Landscape

As you prepare for your campaign, it is critical to understand where things stand with Safe Routes to School funding and efforts in your state. Has your state made full use of federal money available for Safe Routes to School, or has it allowed available funds, that could be used to make children’s travel to school safer, to stagnate? What kind of commitment has your state made to walking and bicycling? The background will influence your policy goals and strategy choices you make.

Before embarking on your campaign, you will want a thorough assessment of the political and program landscape for Safe Routes to School in your state to inform your strategy.  The following questions will assist you in understanding what to ask when preparing your Safe Routes to School campaign. Start with these questions, and explore the issues in more detail as you go:

Understanding the Landscape in Your State

Federal Funding

Understanding your state’s practices regarding federal funding provides an essential starting point for understanding what moneys are currently supporting Safe Routes to School and walking and bicycling in your state.

Questions to explore and understand:

  • Has your state transferred funding out of the Transportation Alternatives program (TAP)?

Why it matters: States are permitted to transfer up to 50 percent of transportation alternatives funds to other transportation funds. But when a state cuts into the limited available funding for walking and biking projects through a transfer, it demonstrates a disregard for biking and walking needs.

  • Has your state DOT held TAP competitions? What types of projects has it funded? How have Safe Routes to School projects fared in the competition?

Why it matters: States are not permitted to simply award TAP funds as they see fit, but must hold a competition and select projects submitted by local agencies.  States that have not held competitions regularly are failing to make a basic effort to use these moneys to improve safety on the ground. In addition, understanding which types of projects are being funded may provide a sense of how difficult of a battle this will be. If the state is not currently funding any Safe Routes to School projects, this may signal that Safe Routes to School is not a priority and your campaign will have to go the extra mile to demonstrate the program’s merit.

  • Did your state use previous dedicated federal Safe Routes to School funds?

Why it matters: Understanding whether your state took advantage of the dedicated federal funds formerly available for Safe Routes to School under SAFETEA-LU will help you assess whether your state has at any point established infrastructure or staffing expertise relative to Safe Routes to School. High obligation rates for these funds may mean that the state DOT had an effective system for focusing personnel during that time period, which might be a good model to resurrect or draw from going forward. Low obligation rates may indicate that your state has never bought into Safe Routes to School, and will require an all new level of dedication.

  • Does your state provide special consideration for Safe Routes to School projects using TAP funds?

Why it matters: Without a dedicated Safe Routes to School funding stream at the federal level, Safe Routes to School projects compete with a broad array of walking and bicycling projects. Some states recognized the importance and value of Safe Routes to School projects and either designate some of the federal TAP dollars specifically for Safe Routes to School projects or provide extra points to Safe Routes to School projects when scoring in the TAP competitions. This is essential information to understand, as it is the aim of many Safe Routes to School funding campaigns. Another essential component is whether or not higher scoring is given to those projects with a strong emphasis on addressing the needs of communities and populations which have historically been marginalized. If this is not happening, this should be a central component of your advocacy efforts.  

State Funding

You’ll also need to have a sense of whether and how state dollars are used to support Safe Routes to School, walking, and bicycling.

Questions to explore and understand:

  • In addition to federal TAP dollars, does your state dedicate state funding for Safe Routes to School?

Why it matters: Some states recognize that the federal transportation funding to support walking and bicycling, and specifically Safe Routes to School, is not enough to meet the demand in their states, and have dedicated state funding to support Safe Routes to School projects and programs. You certainly need to understand as a starting place what your state is already doing to support Safe Routes to School. You should also have an understanding of

the overall fiscal health of your state; is it running at a surplus or deficit?

  • Does your state provide state funding for bicycling or pedestrian needs? What level of funding?

Why it matters: State funding for general bicycle and pedestrian needs signals some level of recognition of the value of active transportation. On the one hand, this bodes well for also supporting more funding for Safe Routes to School, to provide for the specific active transportation needs of children. At the same time, existing state funding for bicycle and pedestrian needs may be seen as addressing some of the needs that you may articulate for Safe Routes to School, so it will be important to be able to articulate why both sets of needs matter. 

  • Does your state DOT provide any considerations or matching funds for high-need communities for state or federal transportation dollars?

Why it matters: States that provide extra points on applications or assist with matching funds for high-need communities may be more open to prioritizing Safe Routes to School funding in high-need communities as well. These considerations on the part of the DOT signal that the state recognizes that in lower-resourced communities there can be a number of challenges to pursuing these funds, including lack of staff time or capacity to write grants, as well as a greater need for active transportation infrastructure due to higher rates of walking and bicycling in lower-resourced neighborhoods. 

How Your DOT Supports Walking, Biking, and Safe Routes to School 

It is helpful to understand how your state DOT operates in practice with regard to walking, bicycling, and Safe Routes to School projects.

Questions to explore and understand:

  • Does your state DOT have a Safe Routes to School coordinator or Bicycle/Pedestrian coordinator?

Why it matters: While no longer required to have a dedicated Safe Routes to School coordinator, state DOTs may use federal funds for staff focused on Safe Routes to School efforts. In states that retained this position, either as a full-time position or combined with other responsibilities, it conveys the DOT’s commitment and capacity to ensure a well-functioning Safe Routes to School program.

  • Does your state DOT provide technical or application assistance to Safe Routes to School applicants and/or high-need communities?

Why it matters: Technical and application assistance may be essential for first time applicants and low-income communities. When a state provides technical or application assistance to schools to start or sustain Safe Routes to School programs, it indicates that the state values Safe Routes to School and wants to see it succeed.

Other State Policies Affecting Walking and Bicycling

Understanding how your state does or does not support and promote active transportation will influence the campaigns you pursue, the allies you find, and the tactics you employ to win those campaigns. There are several ways to evaluate your state’s receptivity to walking and biking. Understanding where your state stands on a number of key policies and practice will provide insight to help align campaign plans accordingly.

Questions to explore and understand:

  • Does your state have a Complete Streets policy?

Why it matters: A Complete Streets policy sets out a state’s commitment to routinely design, build, and operate all streets to enable safe use by everyone, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation.[1] State Complete Streets policies demonstrate that your state has some level of commitment to considering not just cars when making decisions about how streets and roads are designed and constructed. You’ll want to know whether this policy was passed by the legislature – in which case, look for information on who sponsored and supported it – or if it is an internal DOT policy.

  • Has your state adopted or endorsed the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Urban Bikeway Design Guide and/or the Urban Street Design Guide?

Why it matters: These guidelines offer best practices for designing roads to accommodate people walking and bicycling. States that have adopted or endorsed these modern design guidelines, rather than sticking with outdated car-oriented guidelines, make it more possible to build safe roads for everyone. In addition, they send a signal that they are working toward creating supportive environments for people walking and biking.

  • Does your state have active transportation goals to lower walking and bicycling fatalities and/or increase walking and bicycling mode share?

Why it matters: When states commit to active transportation goals it sends a message that walking and bicycling matter and provides rationale for pursuing action toward achieving these goals. Safe Routes to School projects and programs have been shown to improve safety and increase walking and bicycling mode share, and could help the state reach these active transportation goals. Understanding how to align your campaign goals with existing state goals can be an effective campaign strategy. If your state doesn’t have such goals, establishing them can be a stepping stone on the way to a successful Safe Routes to School campaign.

Where to find this information: Safe Routes to School National Partnership’s State Report Cards on Support for Walking, Biking, and Active Kids and Communities; your state’s DOT website; the Federal Highway Administration State Transportation Alternatives Coordinator contact list; newspaper articles; interviews and conversations with legislators, DOT staff, advocates, and other stakeholders.

Understanding the Physical Landscape: Unsafe Routes, Critical Data, and Opportunities

To understand your starting place in your state, another component is having a sense of what your statewide needs are for Safe Routes to School street fixes and benefits.  Data play a critical role in making the case for Safe Routes to School programs and projects. Each type of community in the state is likely to have different needs. For example, rural routes to school are often longer distance but with little traffic and urban routes may be shorter but encounter heavy traffic. Understanding where Safe Routes to School improvements have occurred or are underway, where negative interactions between people walking/biking and cars are happening, characteristics of different routes, and areas that are ripe for Safe Routes to School infrastructure improvements can help determine campaign strategy and influence decisionmakers to make informed decisions about where and how to invest.

Questions to explore and understand:

  • Where have bicycle and pedestrian crashes caused injuries or fatalities among kids? Where have bicycle and pedestrian crashes occurred near schools?

Why it matters: It’s hard to argue against keeping kids safe from traffic violence. Information on where crashes happen and how pervasive an issue it is in your state will provide you with compelling talking points about the need for Safe Routes to School initiatives. These data are particularly salient if there are high-injury corridors or intersections located near schools, which can show the urgent need for Safe Routes to School initiatives.  

  • How do kids get to school in your state?

Why it matters: Understanding school travel mode – how students travel to school – will provide an informative baseline, helping understand how many students are walking, bicycling, taking a school bus, taking public transportation, or getting a ride from family members. This information is generally most useful when reported at the community level, rather than at the state level, because how safe and easy it is to walk or bike to school varies from place to place. In some communities, kids are walking and bicycling in unsafe conditions because it is their only option. In other communities, kids are being driven in spite of living close enough to walk or bike to school.

  • What percentage of students live within reasonable walking distance (typically one mile for elementary school students to two miles for high school students) of school?

Why it matters: Combined with the above information, this tells you the potential impact of a Safe Routes to School program. If your state or communities within your state have a high percentage of students living within reasonable walking distance to school, yet not walking or bicycling, there is a tremendous opportunity for Safe Routes to School initiatives. Note that even if your state or community has a low percentage of students living within reasonable walking distance to school, Safe Routes to School initiatives are still essential, but require some different approaches. There are successful Safe Routes to School strategies specifically for improving walking and bicycling to school in rural or spread out suburban areas.

  • What are rates of unhealthy weight, weight-related chronic disease, and physical activity among kids?

Why it matters: One of the most compelling benefits of Safe Routes to School is increases in kids’ physical activity levels. Regular physical activity is essential for supporting kids to grow up at a healthy weight. Some states have State Health Improvement Plans, which set out current and target rates of overweight, obesity, and weight-related chronic diseases. There are also helpful databases that list each state’s rate of obesity and, at times, related health indicators. Using these data provides the opportunity to frame Safe Routes to School initiatives as part of the solution to supporting kids to grow up at a healthy weight.

Where to find this information: State health improvement plans, State of Obesity website, Department of Education website, state DOT website, existing Safe Routes to School plans, local government and metropolitan planning organization transportation studies and plans, local school district websites, journal articles, key informant interviews with agency personnel, and researchers.

[1] Smart Growth America. What are Complete Streets?. Retrieved from http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/complete-streets/complete-streets-fundamentals/complete-streets-faq.