UFTI Researchers Provide Technical Assistance to Encourage Safer Routes to Schools

UFTI faculty affiliates Dr. Ruth Steiner and Dr. Sivaramakrishnan Srinivasan, along with UFTI’s Technology Transfer (T2) Center Director Maria Cahill, will be working on a Safe Routes to School Technical Assistance project. Their focus will be on assisting rural and under-resourced communities in Florida in developing SRTS grant applications.

This project includes several steps, beginning with a review of the existing literature. Then they will identify and customize the methodologies for data collection and community engagement processes developed by other organizations to the small and rural counties in Florida. The team will also identify statewide organizations and local partners for participation in the development of grant proposals for SRTS money and develop an implementation plan for providing technical assistance to these communities to increase the number of applications.

The Federal Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) program was established in August 2005 as part of SAFETEA-LU, which provided funding for State Departments of Transportation to create and administer SRTS programs. These programs aimed to increase the number of children who walk or bicycle to school by funding projects that remove the barriers that currently prevent them from doing so.

In July 2012, Congress passed another transportation bill: Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). Beginning that October, SRTS activities became eligible to compete for funding alongside other programs, including the Transportation Enhancements program and Recreational Trails program, as part of a new program called Transportation Alternatives (TAP).

This past December, President Barack Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. It is the first federal law in over a decade to provide long-term funding certainty for surface transportation infrastructure planning and investment. This new transportation legislation also maintains funding for SRTS, bicycling and walking improvements and provides a small increase in funding for the TAP, renamed the Surface Transportation Program (STP Setaside).

“The program is alive and well,” Sarita Taylor, SRTS coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation, said. “We’re committed to helping improve safety needs and remove hazards found around schools that may deter children from walking or bicycling to them.” Currently, the State of Florida has pledged seven million dollars a year to the program.

The T2 Center will continue its technical support by engaging stakeholders in developing community support for these projects. A T2 Center staff engineer will help identify and test best practices for neighborhood site assessments as well as collect the data needed to support SRTS projects in two pilot communities. This initial work will lay the groundwork for providing continuing technical assistance for SRTS in rural communities throughout the state.

“T2 is proud to be a partner in helping children walk safely to and from school,” Cahill said.

This study also coincides with an ongoing effort by the Transportation Safety Center (TSC), which is housed within the T2 Center, to improve the safety of the local roads in rural counties in the state of Florida. Funded by FDOT, the TSC has already assisted Union and Hendry counties identify countermeasures to improve the safety of their local roads and is currently working with Gadsden County. It is anticipated that the SRTS project will also focus on Gadsden County as its initial case study and draw upon relationships already established by the TSC.

Dr. Steiner is a veteran on this topic, having been involved with various SRTS research projects with STRIDE collaborator Noreen McDonald of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They co-wrote a paper titled “Assessing the distribution of safe routes to school program funds, 2005-2012” that found that most school benefiting from SRTS programs were urban and have higher Latino populations but are otherwise similar to other schools in the United States.

Steiner and McDonald also published “Impact of the Safe Routes to School Program on Walking and Bicycling”, which is the largest study of SRTS program result to-date, where they found that SRTS programs have been effective. A review of 801 schools in the District of Columbia, Florida, Oregon, and Texas found that SRTS increased the proportion of students walking and biking to school, and also found that engineering improvements (such as enhancing intersections and adding sidewalks) were associated with walking or biking rates going up by 3.3 percentage points per year, with a relative change of 18 percent over five years. Education and encouragement programs corresponded with walking and biking going up by one percentage point per year, with a relative increase of 25 percent over five years.

“Rural areas are sometimes left out of the conversation,” Steiner said. “Population density isn’t as high as in urban areas so some people don’t think that investments in rural places can be as impactful.”