Safe Routes to Schools

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) is a federally supported program that promotes walking and biking to school through education, incentives, and environmental changes. Comprehensive SRTS initiatives incorporate each of the 6 E’s in program implementation: evaluation, education, encouragement, engineering, engagement, and equity. SRTS programs support city planning and legislative efforts to make walking and biking safer and provide resources and activities to help communities build sidewalks, bicycle paths, and other pedestrian-friendly infrastructure1, 2. In the U.S., over 80% of adolescents are not getting the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity3.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased active transportation

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased physical activity

  • Improved health outcomes

  • Increased pedestrian and cyclist safety

  • Reduced emissions

  • Reduced vehicle miles traveled

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) increases the number of students walking or biking to school3, 4, 5. Improvements to pedestrian or bicycle transportation systems and environmental design interventions, which can be supported by SRTS, have been shown to increase physical activity6.

Interventions that support active travel to school can improve street crossing behavior, safety awareness, and children’s bicycling skills, as well as influence parent and child perceptions about and attitudes toward active travel3, 4. Active travel to school can increase daily moderate to vigorous physical activity4, 7, and is associated with healthier body composition and cardio fitness levels8. SRTS has a small positive effect on active travel among children4, 9. Schools with more policies to support active travel have more students using active travel to get to school, especially among students in higher grades5. By improving walking and bicycling routes, SRTS projects in urban areas may also increase physical activity levels for adults and may help introduce bicycling in communities where it is not common4, 10, 11.

SRTS projects that include sidewalk and infrastructure improvements can improve pedestrian safety and reduce road traffic injuries4, 12, 13. SRTS has been shown to reduce pedestrian­­ crashes and injuries14, especially for school-age children12, 15 during school commute hours16, 17. However, SRTS programs without infrastructure improvements are not associated with reduced pedestrian or bicycle crashes12.

Replacing automotive trips with biking or walking can reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change at relatively low cost, although the long-term effect on traffic reduction is likely minor18, 19, 20. Expert analysis suggests efforts to improve the walkability of communities as a climate change solution have low implementation costs, with the potential for significant cost savings and emissions reductions (2.8 to 3.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide over 30 years)18.

Parent support is essential to allow and encourage children to walk or bike to school, especially for younger children21. SRTS programs that include additional parent engagement and community outreach efforts may increase participation more than other SRTS programs21, 22. Parent surveys suggest that strong school support for SRTS programs and awareness of health benefits can encourage active transit participation23. Neighborhood norms, especially seeing other parents and children walking or biking to school, may also encourage active transit participation21. SRTS programs may be especially beneficial for families that live a half mile or less from school and among those attending schools in low- or middle-income neighborhoods23. Surveys of parents who drive their children less than two miles to school indicate that convenience and time savings are key reasons for drivin­­g; SRTS may not be able to address these constraints24. Safety and security concerns can also discourage parents from allowing students to walk or bike to school25, 26; incomplete SRTS implementation, insufficient or inexperienced volunteers, lack of funding, and difficulties maintaining partnerships can also be challenges for programs in urban or rural areas4, 27.

SRTS interventions have a positive benefit to cost ratio and may achieve even greater benefits when combined with other active transit policies, such as Complete Streets or built environment initiatives that connect public transportation systems28. In a New York City-based cost effectiveness study, SRTS saved money over the long-term, and was associated with a large net benefit for society29. Nationally, SRTS programs with public investments in walking and bicycling infrastructure can reduce transportation expenditures for school districts and families. SRTS programs are most cost effective for schools with a large number of children living within walking distance30.

Multidisciplinary, collaborative partnerships increase community support, knowledge and problem-solving capacity, coordination, and funding opportunities to support successful SRTS efforts27.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by expert opinion.

Experts suggest Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) programs have the potential to reduce disparities in access to and participation in safe, active transit to school between communities of color with low incomes and predominantly white communities with higher incomes34, 35, 36. SRTS programs may be especially beneficial for students living farther from school, but still within a 15 minute walking distance36. SRTS programs increase active transportation to school; however, disparities in program participation persist, especially between under-resourced communities of color and affluent, mostly white communities34. Disparities in the quality of the built environment for physical activity and active transportation to schools exist by race and income across the U.S., with the most favorable environments in mostly white communities with high incomes and the least favorable environments in communities of color with low incomes37.

Comprehensive SRTS programs incorporate equity considerations in program implementation to prioritize funding SRTS infrastructure projects in school districts with the greatest funding needs, fewer resources, and more students from low income backgrounds. However, efforts to distribute funds equitably often fail to address existing inequalities in the built environment between neighborhoods with low incomes that have been structurally deprived of resources and nearby more affluent communities. To reduce disparities in access to safe, active transit opportunities and improve equity, communities with lower incomes need to receive more financial and infrastructural investments than communities with high incomes35. To develop equitable and sustainable SRTS programs, experts suggest increasing funding mechanisms for infrastructure projects in under-resourced communities and incorporating training and educational materials for staff trying to reach those living in under-resourced communities34. Addressing safety concerns and improving deteriorated infrastructure with SRTS programs can increase active travel to school among children from high, medium, and low poverty neighborhoods, and may be especially beneficial for students from low income backgrounds who often do not have an alternative to walking to school35, 38.

What is the relevant historical background?

Discriminatory housing, lending, and exclusionary zoning policies have shaped communities, entrenched racial residential segregation, concentrated poverty, created disparities in public resources, and ensured unequal investment in transportation infrastructure between neighborhoods35, 39, 40, 41. The built environment in such communities reduces access to resources, physical activity, and healthy behaviors35, and is a significant contributor to health inequities for people of color with low incomes42, 43, 44. Disinvestment in the built environment and unequal distribution of resources for physical activity means that communities with low incomes and communities of color have fewer places to engage in outdoor activities, have less access to cooling shade, and experience poorer air quality45, 46. Communities of color and those with lower incomes often lack or have low quality infrastructure to support active transportation and have higher pedestrian fatality rates35.

Automobile-centric design motivated many zoning patterns and urban movements, creating even more community inequalities through reduced access to transportation options, increased residential segregation, and further entrenching health disparities43. Altogether, these patterns have decreased the physical health and safety of communities. People of color, those with low incomes, and those who are uninsured are more likely to suffer pedestrian injuries and fatalities because they are all more likely to live in under-resourced communities that are the least safe for walking47. Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) programs try to offer transportation alternatives in communities designed for cars and driving, to support additional physical activity, and to increase community safety for children walking and bicycling to school, all of which are interrelated48.

SRTS was first implemented in Denmark in the 1970s to address high child fatality rates from traffic accidents48. In 1997, the first SRTS programs in the U.S. began in Florida and in the Bronx, New York. California created the first state-wide SRTS program in 199948. These successful examples led to many grassroots SRTS programs across the country and to the establishment of a national SRTS program in 2005, as part of Congress’s transportation bill, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users. Over the next seven years, Congress allocated $1.2 billion to SRTS programs and distributed funds to state departments of transportation without requiring matching local or state funds, so that schools in lower income areas would not be underfunded48. After 2012, new federal legislation grouped SRTS with other active transportation funding initiatives, cut overall funding for all bicycle and pedestrian efforts, and included a 20% local or state matching fund requirement48.

Equity Considerations
  • How does your community engage school families and neighborhood residents, especially residents of color and those with low incomes, in the planning, development, and prioritization of Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) projects? Do those leading SRTS initiatives represent the local community? What data and community feedback are collected to ensure equitable implementation?
  • Which city planning groups, community organizations, and other local stakeholders are involved in implementing SRTS projects? How can you work with local schools and planners to support the implementation of SRTS projects that also meet the needs of the broader community?
  • How are funds raised and allocated for SRTS projects in your community?
  • How have historic zoning ordinances, land uses, traffic patterns, streetscape design, and other built environment factors contributed to local challenges, especially pedestrian safety? Which neighborhoods in your community have the greatest need for physical infrastructure improvements through SRTS programs?
Implementation Examples

Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) programs operate in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., in urban, suburban, and rural communities with varying income levels1. Every state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) manages and administers the state SRTS program and appoints a full-time SRTS coordinator. The level of SRTS implementation varies by state31. The 2019 SRTS program census suggests that several states have strong support for SRTS programs, including California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Virginia. There were six states that appear to have low engagement with SRTS and did not respond to the survey, including Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Mississippi, and West Virginia32.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) highlights several examples of cities and states with promising SRTS efforts for communities to replicate, including Arlington and Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Portland, Oregon; Florida; and Santa Ana, California33.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

SRTSNP-Resources - Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP). Resources.

NCSRTS - Safe Routes. National Center for Safe Routes to School (NCSRTS).

SRTSNP-Gavin 2010 - Gavin K, Pedroso M. Implementing Safe Routes to School in low-income schools and communities: A resource guide for volunteers and professionals. Fairfax: Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP); 2010.

ChangeLab-SRTS - ChangeLab Solutions. Safe Routes to School (SRTS).

AHA-VFHK toolkits - American Heart Association (AHA). Voices for healthy kids (VFHK): Resources and toolkits.

US DOT-PBIC - U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC).

CDC DNPAO-Data - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Division of Nutrition Physical Activity and Obesity (DNPAO). Nutrition, physical activity and obesity: Data, trends and maps online tool.

LHC-Rockeymoore 2014 - Rockeymoore M, Moscetti C, Fountain A. Rural childhood obesity prevention toolkit. Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC), Center for Global Policy Solutions, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 2014.

HOST-PA - Healthy Out-of-School Time (HOST) Coalition. Resources: Physical activity (PA).

NHTSA-SRTS guide - National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Safe Routes to School (SRTS): Practice and Promise.

SRTSNP-Safe routes to healthy foods - Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP). Healthy communities: Safe routes to healthy foods.

Voulgaris 2020 - Voulgaris CT, Alexander S, Hosseinzade R, Jimenez J, Lee K. Measuring success for Safe Routes to School programs. Mineta Transportation Institute. 2020.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 SRTSNP-101 - Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP). What is Safe Routes to School?

2 SRTSNP - Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP).

3 Buttazzoni 2018 - Buttazzoni AN, Van Kesteren ES, Shah TI, Gilliland JA. Active school travel intervention methodologies in North America: A systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2018;55(1):115-124.

4 Larouche 2018 - Larouche R, Mammen G, Rowe DA, et al. Effectiveness of active school transport interventions: A systematic review and update. BioMed Central (BMC) Public Health. 2018;18(1):1-18.

5 Ganzar 2023 - Ganzar LA, Burford K, Zhang Y, et al. Association of walking and biking to school policies and active commuting to school in children. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 2023;20(7):648-654.

6 CG-Physical activity - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Physical activity.

7 Bassett 2013 - Bassett DR, Fitzhugh EC, Heath GW, et al. Estimated energy expenditures for school-based policies and active living. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2013;44(2):108-113.

8 Lubans 2011 - Lubans DR, Boreham CA, Kelly P, Foster CE. The relationship between active travel to school and health-related fitness in children and adolescents: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2011;8:5.

9 Wendel 2009 - Wendel AM, Dannenberg AL. Reversing declines in walking and bicycling to school. Preventive Medicine. 2009;48(6):513-515.

10 Stewart 2014 - Stewart O, Moudon AV, Claybrooke C. Multistate evaluation of Safe Routes to School programs. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2014;28(3 Suppl):S89-S96.

11 Watson 2008 - Watson M, Dannenberg AL. Investment in Safe Routes to School projects: Public health benefits for the larger community. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2008;5(3).

12 Lizarazo 2021 - Lizarazo CG, Hall T, Tarko A. Impact of the Safe Routes to School program: Comparative analysis of infrastructure and noninfrastructure measures in Indiana. Journal of Transportation Engineering, Part A: Systems. 2021;147(1).

13 Ragland 2014 - Ragland DR, Pande S, Bigham J, Cooper JF. Ten years later: Examining the long-term impact of the California Safe Routes to School program. Berkeley, CA: Safe Transportation Research & Education Center (SafeTREC); 2014.

14 Dumbaugh 2007 - Dumbaugh E, Frank L. Traffic safety and Safe Routes to Schools: Synthesizing the empirical evidence. Transportation Research Record: Journal of Transportation Research Board. 2007;2009(1):89-97.

15 DiMaggio 2016 - DiMaggio C, Frangos S, Li G. National Safe Routes to School program and risk of school-age pedestrian and bicyclist injury. Annals of Epidemiology. 2016;26(6):412-417.

16 DiMaggio 2014 - DiMaggio C, Chen Q, Muennig PA, Li G. Timing and effect of a Safe Routes to School program on child pedestrian injury risk during school travel hours: Bayesian changepoint and difference-in-differences analysis. Injury Epidemiology. 2014;1(1):17.

17 DiMaggio 2013 - DiMaggio C, Li G. Effectiveness of a Safe Routes to School program in preventing school-aged pedestrian injury. Pediatrics. 2013;131(2):290-296.

18 Project Drawdown-Walk - Project Drawdown. Climate solutions: Walkable cities.

19 RAND-Sorenson 2008 - Sorenson P, Wachs M, Min EY, et al. Moving Los Angeles: Short-term policy options for improving transportation. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2008: Monograph Report 748.

20 Salon 2012 - Salon D, Boarnet MG, Handy S, Spears S, Tal G. How do local actions affect VMT? A critical review of the empirical evidence. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment. 2012;17(7):495-508.

21 Ross 2021 - Ross A, Wilson K. The power of the neighborhood: Perceived normative behaviors moderate individual predictors of walking and biking to school. Journal of Transport and Health. 2021;22:101236.

22 Rodriguez 2019a - Rodriguez NM, Arce A, Kawaguchi A, et al. Enhancing safe routes to school programs through community-engaged citizen science: Two pilot investigations in lower density areas of Santa Clara County, California, USA. BMC Public Health. 2019;19:256.

23 Ross 2022 - Ross A, Kurka JM. Predictors of active transportation among Safe Routes to School participants in Arizona: Impacts of distance and income. Journal of School Health. 2022;92(3):282-292.

24 McDonald 2009 - McDonald NC, Aalborg AE. Why parents drive children to school: Implications for Safe Routes to School programs. Journal of the American Planning Association. 2009;75(3):331-342.

25 Omura 2019 - Omura JD, Hyde ET, Watson KB, et al. Prevalence of children walking to school and related barriers-United States, 2017. Preventive Medicine. 2019;118:191-195.

26 Nasrudin 2013 - Nasrudin N, Nor ARM. Travelling to school: Transportation selection by parents and awareness towards sustainable transportation. Procedia Environmental Sciences. 2013;17:392-400.

27 Macridis 2015 - Macridis S, García Bengoechea E. Adoption of Safe Routes to School in Canadian and the United States contexts: Best practices and recommendations. Journal of School Health. 2015;85(8):558-566.

28 CG-Petersen 2021 - Petersen R, Pedroso MS. Economic benefits of promoting safe walking and biking to school: Creating momentum for community improvements. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2021;60(1):e41-e43.

29 Muennig 2014 - Muennig PA, Epstein M, Li G, DiMaggio C. The cost-effectiveness of New York City’s Safe Routes to School program. American Journal of Public Health. 2014;104(7):1294-1299.

30 McDonald 2016 - McDonald NC, Steiner RL, Palmer WM, et al. Costs of school transportation: Quantifying the fiscal impacts of encouraging walking and bicycling for school travel. Transportation. 2016;43(1):159-175.

31 SRTSNP-State contacts - Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP). Healthy communities: State contacts.

32 SRTS-Census 2020 - Safe Routes Partnership. The Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program census project: 2019 national program assessment report. Fairfax, VA: Safe Routes Partnership; 2020.

33 NHTSA-SRTS guide - National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Safe Routes to School (SRTS): Practice and Promise.

34 Elliott 2023 - Elliott LD, Lieberman M, Rovniak LS, et al. What are states doing to encourage Safe Routes to School programming in disadvantaged communities? Findings from a U.S. mixed-methods survey. Transportation Research Record. 2023;2677(5):1151-1163.

35 Ganzar 2022 - Ganzar LA, Bentley SS, Salvo D, et al. Incorporating equity into active commuting to school infrastructure projects: A case study. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment. 2022;112:103493.

36 Voulgaris 2021 - Voulgaris CT, Hosseinzade R, Pande A, Alexander SE. Neighborhood effects of safe routes to school programs on the likelihood of active travel to school. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2021;2675(8):10-21.

37 Wende 2022 - Wende ME, Stowe EW, Hallum SH, et al. Exploring disparities in youth physical activity environments by income and non-Hispanic white population across the United States. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2022;28(2):E630-E634.

38 Burford 2021 - Burford K, Ganzar LA, Lanza K, Kohl HW, Hoelscher DM. School-level economic disparities in police-reported crimes and active commuting to school. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021;18:10885.

39 Shertzer 2022 - Shertzer A, Twinam T, Walsh RP. Zoning and segregation in urban economic history. Regional Science and Urban Economics. 2022;94:103652.

40 Zdenek 2017 - Zdenek RO, Walsh D. Navigating community development: Harnessing comparative advantages to create strategic partnerships. Chapter: The background and history of community development organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2017.

41 Kaplan 2007 - Kaplan J, Valls A. Housing discrimination as a basis for Black reparations. Public Affairs Quarterly. 2007;21(3):255-273.

42 Prochnow 2022 - Prochnow T, Valdez D, Curran LS, et al. Multifaceted scoping review of Black/African American transportation and land use expert recommendations on activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations. Health Promotion Practice. 2022.

43 McAndrews 2022 - McAndrews C, Schneider RJ, Yang Y, et al. Toward a gender-inclusive Complete Streets movement. Journal of Planning Literature. 2022;38(1):3-18.

44 Brookings-Semmelroth 2020 - Semmelroth L. How Wilmington, Del. is revitalizing vacant land to rebuild community trust. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2020.

45 CAP-Rowland-Shea 2020 - Rowland-Shea J, Doshi S, Edberg S, Fanger R. The nature gap: Confronting racial and economic disparities in the destruction and protection of nature in America. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress (CAP); 2020.

46 TPL-Chapman 2021 - Chapman R, Foderaro L, Hwang L, et al. Parks and an equitable recovery. San Francisco, CA: The Trust for Public Land (TPL); 2021.

47 Dodds 2017 - Dodds A. For the greater good: A Complete Streets approach can benefit low-income communities. Roads & Bridges. 2017.

48 Stewart 2018 - Stewart OT. Chapter 13: Safe Routes to School (SRTS). In: Larouche R, ed. Children’s Active Transport. Cambridge: Elsevier; 2018:193-203.