September/October 1998, p.12-13

Bronx "Safe Routes To School" Campaign Blazes New Path

Step 5: Survey: On a Safe Routes survey, one parent of a P.S. 48 student identifies her main concerns as speeding cars and a short "walk" light at adjacent intersections. Read the latest news about this issue.

Every Monday morning and Zaida Arce and her son set out on their daily walk to Our Lady of Refuge School in the Fordham Bedford community in The Bronx. At about the same time Shirley Powell, Norma Soto, Marilyn Paez, and thousands of other Bronx parents walk with their children to neighborhood schools. They may walk different streets to different schools but they share the same concern: crossing the street safely.

Being hit by a car is the number one cause of death for kids 5-14 in New York City, with The Bronx leading the five boroughs with the highest percentage of children hit (over 1/3 of the pedestrians hit in The Bronx are children 14 and under). To help the borough's youngest and most vulnerable pedestrians T.A. developed "Safe Routes to School." The program is the first of its kind in the United States and is sponsored by The Bronx Borough President, Fernando Ferrer, and the Governor's Traffic Safety Committee. Safe Routes to School lays out a 10-step process that brings parents, teachers and principals together with traffic engineers to identify dangerous locations and fix them.

Since October 1997, T.A.'s program coordinator for the Safe Routes to School project, Susan Boyle, has worked to create safe walking corridors at 13 Bronx elementary schools and will be reaching out to another 18 schools for the 1998-99 school year. The program is based on one developed in Copenhagen, Denmark in the early 1980's and has translated well in culturally diverse Bronx communities like Mott Haven and Bronxdale.

Safe Routes to School has been so popular that schools are vying to participate. At Our Lady of Refuge school, parents seized their chance to make their kids safer. They set up tables outside Our Lady of Refuge church and delivered surveys to entire apartment buildings. Ultimately, parents collected over 200 surveys listing traffic dangers to their children.

In total, hundreds of surveys were collected from the 13 selected schools. T.A. used City and State pedestrian crash data, mapped on Geographic Information System software, to put statistics behind the observations and experiences of parents. Then, with engineers and planners from the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT), changes in signage, signal timing and traffic calming methods were planned and installed and safe walking routes created. DOT is installing speed humps and elevated crosswalks as a first step, and will install sidewalk extensions and other measures over the course of the summer. Ultimately, the target of the process is the DOT and its political masters who must spend the money and resources to get the traffic calming done.

The project is novel both because of its inclusivity and its primary goal - to calm traffic in ways that alter motorist behavior. The traditional-and often failed- approach of school traffic safety programs in the United States has been modifying the behavior of potential pedestrian victims. In Copenhagen, the Safe Routes to School program's traffic calming improvements produced an astounding 85% reduction in child-pedestrian-motor vehicle crashes. The goal is to replicate this success in The Bronx.

The Bronx Borough President's Office and T.A. have two criteria for selecting elementary schools to participate. First, parents and principals must already be actively concerned about dangerous walking conditions; second, a high number of pedestrian injuries can be documented.

Cooperation Ensures Results
In eight months, the Safe Routes project has gone from handing out surveys at seven elementary schools to the installation of speed humps, elevated crosswalks and new signage at those schools. This speedy action is a direct result of the strong consensus and cooperation between parents and school officials, local elected officials and the NYC DOT that Safe Routes fostered.

While this degree of community involvement and planning may seem extraordinary given the relatively modest traffic calming involved, keep in mind that in New York City traffic changes are often mired in furious and contentious debate and opposition. A key challenge was to generate a process in which DOT engineers felt welcome and needed, rather than criticized and on the defensive. The Safe Routes process has done that and more. It has been so popular with local elected officials that Bronx City Councilmember Aldolfo Carrion and a member of the State Assembly have committed to implement traffic calming at schools in their districts. In May, the NYC DOT announced an extraordinary $50 to $80 million program to improve pedestrian safety and traffic calm areas around all 1,300 NYC public schools. This announcement appears to have been inspired by the political popularity of the Safe Routes To School program in The Bronx.

A Safe Routes to School program can be conducted by a public interest group, Department of Transportation, planning group or school system. What is important is that a project coordinator has the backing of a powerful institution that allows him or her to bring together interested parties and work with them to produce a sense of ownership in the Safe Routes process. With the proven potential to sharply reduce crippling injuries to young children, cities and towns across the New York region and the nation should be aggressively pursuing their own Safe Routes to School campaigns.

10 steps to Safer Routes to School

1. Identify Prospective Schools
Nomination forms are sent to school districts, police precincts, and community board district managers, plus the project manager consults with The Borough President's Office and NYC DOT. The idea is to draw on knowledgeable sources who work with more than one school.

2. Select Schools
After nominating forms are reviewed, the schools which appear to be good candidates are matched with geocoded pedestrian crash data obtained from the City and State Department of Transportation. Using a Geographic Information System (GIS), a five year history of crashes involving children 5-14 during the morning and afternoon is graphically plotted around nominated schools.
Note on GIS: GIS crash plotting is only a few years old in NYC. A map showing injured and killed pedestrians, especially children, is an extremely powerful outreach tool to the public and elected officials. It also is extremely helpful in identifying problem locations.

3. Initial Contact with Schools
The project coordinator meets with the principal, PTA president or any citizens who have taken the lead on walking safety, explains the project and enlists their help in organizing a larger meeting with parents. In some cases, meeting notices are sent home with children or mailed to parents.

4. School Outreach
At the larger meeting, the project coordinator explains the program and asks for help in identifying problem spots and in completing survey forms. Meetings are conducted in English and Spanish to effectively reach most parents.

5. Distribute Surveys / Parents Identify Walking Routes
The coordinator distributes survey forms to parents. The surveys include a map of the area within four blocks of the school, on which the parents are asked to draw a line showing their usual walking route and indicating hazards.

6. Surveys Collated / Routes Matched With Crashes
Using a method developed by the Project for Public Spaces to determine pedestrian desired paths, the walking routes from the surveys are drawn on a master map to determine the most popular routes.

7. Site Tour
At this point the schools and parents are strongly invested in the project. Now it is time to bring in the DOT for a tour of all the school sites. In The Bronx, DOT engineers and planners from the DOT Borough Office, Traffic Calming and Safety groups were invited by the project coordinator on behalf of the Borough President for an all-day visit to the sites to develop solutions.

8. Proposal
At the conclusion of the site tour, the project coordinator collects briefing books and solution sketches in a master proposal. This proposal goes to the chief DOT planner for comments.

9. Installation
DOT begins installation of recommended traffic calming devices, such as speed humps and elevated crosswalks.

10. Follow up
Three to six months after the installation of the traffic calming devices the project coordinator will return to the schools and follow up with principals and parents. After a year, before and after crash histories will be compared and further modifications made if needed.