November 14, 2010

Building Coalitions for Better Streets, One School at a Time

Spaces that need improvements for bicycle and pedestrian users face a number of obstacles.

First: the land use patterns that make walking and biking more difficult than driving. This is the foundation, and it both politely and actively discourages users from reimagining the space as anything but autocentric.

Second: the lack of a visible group of beneficiaries. In the suburbs, people see cars, trucks, and more cars--why divert precious funds from what is clearly the dominant mode? Thus, projects for bikes and peds catch flak for wasting taxpayer dollars on frivolous expenditures. See anti Measure O arguments, short-sighted local business owners, and recent shift toward Republican leadership.

Third, is the lack of an organized group of beneficiaries. In most communities, stakeholders with significant buy-in to status quo arrangements--auto commuters in traffic, businesses with limited parking--will be the most vocal in calling for remedies. Conservative Taxpayer groups, business associations, and people fed up with commutes exert pressure on elected and appointed officials to keep expanding and improving roads and parking. There's a mobilized constituency for officials to work with. Outside of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and a handful of other places, Bike Coalitions are small players, and organizations angling for ped improvements are usually regional, national, or of the observational nature, like this blog. (This is from my limited experience, i.e., Complete Streets, Streetsblog, etc). In other words, they are less effective at building local constituencies.

In order to create demand for improved bike and ped infrastructure, one would need a constituency that cuts across economic and social class, is present in communities across the nation, and is intensely concerned about how local transportation networks serve pedestrians and bicyclists. A tall order--but the constituency exists: elementary and middle school students, their parents, and their teachers.

The Safe Routes to School (SRTS) initiative first popped up on the radar in the 1970s in the US and in the Netherlands. It only gathered momentum after 1997, when a local project in the Bronx gave rise to two nationally funded pilot programs. In 2005 and 2006, SAFETEA-LU, the massive federal transportation omnibus, appropriated $600 million to create the National Safe Routes to School Program, which has an excellent online guide for bringing a SRTS program to your school.

Since then, some 10,000 schools have received SRTS funding to improve the safety and convenience of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. The comprehensive online guide facilitates grass roots organizing by outlining sequential best practices for SRTS success--everything from how to build a coalition, to how to look for funding, to what a bump out and a chicane are, to how to improve street connectivity with retrofitted pedestrian access paths.
Suburban culs de-sac create inefficiencies and concentrate traffic on arterials

Now, I'm not suggesting that folks like myself pose as concerned parents and infiltrate PTAs to set up SRTS coalitions--though that would be fun--but there are organizations doing excellent work to organize communities of parents and educators, and link them with the funding and impetus to invest in reclaiming streets for school children. One of these is TransForm, based in Oakland. In 2008, it partnered with the Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority to bring $1 million in SRTS funding to four Oakland schools:

This project is designed to remedy concerns frequently raised by parents, principals and students that speeding traffic poses safety issues and discourages walking and bicycling.  The project will include ADA-compliant pedestrian “bulb-outs” and ramps, crosswalks, pushbuttons and countdown signals, closes gaps and widens sidewalks at identified locations. Bicycling safety will be improved by adding new bike lanes on Alcatraz Avenue from Dover Street to College Avenue. The project also realigns traffic lanes on Hopkins Place to improve safety for vehicular traffic, as well as students walking or bicycling to school. Hopkins Place connects MacArthur Boulevard bicycle lanes with the front of Bret Harte Middle School.
The byproduct of mobilized school communities is a better infrastructure for the entire city, and ingrained good habits in its youth. Just like the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated curb cuts that are more frequently used by parents pushing strollers, or seniors pulling groceries, SRTS infrastructure improvements will all users to move around their environment in more ways, more safely and conveiently. I don't have the space here to elaborate on the multitudinous benefits of biking and walking to school (or anywhere else) from a social justice standpoint, so I'll just say that any reduction of automobile dependence anywhere will save money and lives. And that can only be a good thing.


SRTS projects in CA that received funding in the '10-11 funding year
TransForm info sheet for SRTS services they coordinate
SRTS program brief for 2010 (pdf)
More detailed ways to improve the school zone, the school route, street crossings, and traffic conditions.

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