NJ Pioneers an Urban Approach to "Safe Routes to Schools"

NJDOT is wrapping up its Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Urban Demonstration Project, a pilot program meant to assist urban areas in winning federal funds for pedestrian improvements around schools. Last month NJDOT’s Safe Routes to School Director Elise Bremmer-Nei announced that the agency was finalizing programs of infrastructure and other improvements for six urban schools, as well as a final report to be released next year by the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.

Created in 2005, the federal Safe Routes to School program is one funding mechanism which municipalities can use for pedestrian improvements around schools; the federal government provides the money, localities apply for funding, and states review applications and award grants. However, as the New Jersey program progressed it became increasingly apparent that suburban communities had advantages in the process, leaving urban areas to rely on sparse local capital to fund improvements. One Newark official summed up the main problem as such:“We don’t have the funding to apply for the Safe Routes To School grant, and if we got the grant, we don’t have the manpower to see it through.”

Recognizing this, NJDOT created the Urban Demonstration Program in 2007, and worked directly with urban communities and the children themselves to identify obstacles to SRTS application and implementation. Selecting two elementary schools in the cities of Trenton, Camden and Newark, NJDOT created an open dialogue with students and their communities, developing neighborhood partners, conducting a needs assessment for each location, holding community workshops, and developing travel plans. Besides funding and staffing, NJDOT found that other impediments included:

  • High turnover of elected officials (for example, three of the last five Camden mayors were ousted for corruption);
  • Many layers of bureaucracy for grassroots partners to sift through;
  • A tendency for pedestrian safety to be trumped by the “crisis of the day” and low expectations for pedestrian safety improvement programs;
  • A lack of trust in government and government consultants, who often made offers of aid that never materialized or produced meaningful results.

Urban youth also face different obstacles than their suburban counterparts. Suburban SRTS programs often focus on programmatic solutions that encourage children to walk to schools, such as “walking school buses” and walk-to-school days. By contrast, most urban children are already walking, but need safer pedestrian environments in terms of both traffic safety and crime. In community meetings, Trenton, Newark, and Camden children all said that they wanted to be aware of the locations of recent violence so they could avoid those routes on their way to school. In all three cities meeting participants cited gang violence, lechery, gunshots, a lack of trees, and the need for streetscaping that would make communities more livable and walkable. Such improvements, by getting more people on the streets, could also have a crime-reduction effect.

NJDOT deserves credit for the project, which is the first state-agency-led effort to tackle urban equity issues in a Safe Routes to Schools program. Working with urban children and their communities is exceedingly important because, as one Trenton parent put it, “Without good experiences for students who walk and bike now, they will never see it as a safe alternative to driving, nor will they fight for better facilities later in life.”

MTR will post an update once the final report is released in 2009. Interested readers can also view a webinar on the NJDOT Urban Demonstration Program (hosted by America Walks) today at 2 pm.

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