08/30/10

Safe Routes to School and Non-motorized Transportation EvaluationSafe Routes to School and Non-motorized Transportation Evaluation

From Tony Hull, Nonmotorized Planning and Evaluation Specialist

 

Safe Routes to School Evaluation Roundtable in North Carolina

This month, I had the privilege of being invited to participate in the National Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Expert Evaluation Roundtable hosted by the National Center for SRTS and the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The invitation is due in large part to Bike Walk Twin Cities’ nationally recognized data collection and evaluation effort as part of the nonmotorized transportation pilot program. Our evaluation effort includes countless volunteers and local partners engaging in area-wide bicycling and walking counts year round. It became clear in North Carolina that while we are beginning to put together sound data for nonmotorized travel, we have a lot of work to do.

 

For a nerd like me, this was an extra-special trip, as I was able to meet the folks at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, which includes the Pedestrian and Bicycling Information Center (PBIC). For years PBIC has been my go to resource for data about bicycling and walking, and it was great to finally put faces on the folks who do such a great job of compiling the best research and training materials for bicycling and walking professionals.

 

The purpose of the roundtable was two-fold: to evaluate how well the National SRTS program achieves its goal of safely increasing bicycling and walking for school children and then to identify the data collection strategies that should be in place to measure future program outcomes. The day and a half roundtable included about two-dozen participants including State SRTS coordinators, Public Health officials, researchers and federal agency officials from around the nation.    

 

 The enormous complexity of the Safe Routes program presents numerous challenges in trying to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the program’s success. The Safe Routes program was included in SAFETEA-LU (the federal transportation bill passed in 2005) and as of June 30, 2010:

·         Approximately $548 million of the $776 million in federal SRTS program funds have been announced.

·         All 50 states and the District of Columbia have announced funding for local and/or Statewide SRTS programs.

·         At least 7,622 schools are participating in state-funded SRTS programs.

 

The sheer number of awards and variety of program activities make measuring outcomes a difficult if not impossible task.  At the local level, many programs have developed evaluation strategies to capture data and report outcomes on a school by school or district/community level. There are also a number of states that have volunteered to contribute data from school biking and walking surveys, establishing a small sample of behavior impacts. But identifying the safety benefits proves far more difficult as there is a lack of consistent crash data for school commute trips. Where there is data, the number of crashes is too low to provide a statistically significant measure of change.

 

This experience gave me a new appreciation for the challenges we are facing in coordinating evaluation with our national pilot program partners. How do we demonstrate the impacts of investments to improve bicycling and walking when we have until very recently not collected even the most basic data about non-motorized travel in our communities?  Without a strong baseline of data we have had to develop surrogate measures to demonstrate what most of us intuitively know -- if we give people the opportunity and environment, walking and bicycling can be more than a part of our transportation solution, they can become a part of our healthy, happy lives.

 

There will, no doubt, be many successful outcomes from Safe Routes to School and the Non-motorized Pilot Program, but perhaps the most important will be identifying the need, and hopefully institutionalizing data collection, on bicycling and walking across our nation. We need to expand our transportation inputs beyond vehicle miles of travel and level of service to include the measures that accurately reflect access via all modes for people, goods and services. Until then, we will continue to be unable to effectively gauge the performance of our transportation system, given the lack of data for critical performance measures.