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."
The California Safe Routes to School program funds transportation projects to make it safer for children to walk or bicycle to school, and to encourage more children to do so. Other states, including Delaware, Oregon, Texas and Washington, have funded similar programs that use engineering and other strategies to make children's trips to school safer.
For the study, researchers surveyed parents of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at 10 elementary schools located near projects funded by the California Safe Routes to Schools program. The schools, spread over three Southern California counties, were in neighborhoods representing a wide range of demographics and urban designs.
The researchers found that existing transportation habits played a role in the effectiveness of the infrastructure improvements. For example, at schools where many children already walked to school, there was a more significant increase after the improvements. But at schools where most children were already in the habit of getting to school by car or bus, behavior changes were less marked. Although projects funded by the Safe Routes to Schools program produced measurable increases in the walking and bicycling habits of affected children, the researchers found that overall, fewer students were walking and bicycling to school, suggesting the decades-long downward trend continues.
Schools included in the research are Cesar Chavez Elementary (Bell Gardens), Glenoaks Elementary (Glendale), Jasper Elementary (Alta Loma), Juan Cabrillo Elementary (Malibu), Mt. Vernon Elementary (San Bernardino), Murrieta Elementary (Murrieta), Newman Elementary (Chino), Sheldon Elementary (El Sobrante), Valley Elementary (Yucaipa) and West Randall Elementary (Fontana).
Co-authors of the study include Craig Anderson of the UCI Center for Trauma and Injury Prevention Research; Kristen Day and Mariela Alfonzo in the Department of Planning, Policy and Design; and Tracy McMillan in the Department of Community and Regional Planning at the University of Texas, Austin. The study was funded by the University of California Transportation Center and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
The study is one article in a special issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on the relationship between the built environment and health, produced in collaboration with Active Living Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that supports cross-disciplinary research about environmental factors and policies with the potential to substantially increase physical activity among Americans of all ages, incomes and ethnic backgrounds.
About the University of California, Irvine: The University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked public university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,400 faculty members. The second-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3 billion.
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