The UC Irvine study examining the effectiveness of the California Safe Routes to Schools program is the first to evaluate whether changes to the built environment can increase pedestrian travel to school. The study looks at elementary schools located near improvements funded by the Safe Routes to School program, such as additional traffic lights, new crosswalks and improved sidewalks. Parent surveys show that children who pass by these improvement projects on their route to school are three times as likely to walk or bike to school when the project is completed, compared to classmates who do not pass such projects.
"The kind of infrastructure improvements we looked at in this study are the low-hanging fruit of transportation projects, and it's quite impressive that these are producing measurable effects," said Marlon Boarnet, chair of UCI's planning, policy and design department, and lead author of the study. "It suggests that we ought to think more about these small, strategic projects."
The study is published this month in a special Active Living supplement of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, available online. Existing research shows that physical activity is important for healthy children and adults. And although three decades ago nearly half of American schoolchildren got to school via physically active modes, fewer than 15 percent do so today.
"When the Safe Routes to Schools program began, it was primarily focused on making kids safe on their way to school," said Boarnet. "But as the concern about childhood obesity increases, it's become necessary to look at how projects like this might be used to address health issues, in addition to safety and transportation issues."