National Safe Routes to School Program Calls for GIS Initiatives

Tracy Dash


The National Safe Routes to School program (SRTS) was primarily created to promote safety for children who walk and bike to school. However, it also serves to encourage families to participate in these methods of sustainable transportation. The program was signed into law in 2005 and operates in all 50 states. Each state receives no less than $1 million per year, which can be used for both infrastructure projects and non-infrastructure activities.

Currently, many communities that participate in Safe Routes to School use Geographic Information Systems to store data regarding assessments of transportation-related infrastructure and promotional campaigns. However, most of this data is ‘stuck’ at the local level because there is no national location to store data. Consequentially, this makes GIS data difficult to both share and organize.

To remedy this, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership hosted a conference in Austin, Texas in April 2013. 15 GIS experts from various fields gathered to discuss data continuity, creation of a nation-wide database, public access to data, data connectivity and mapping, and utilizing GIS more frequently in SRTS programs. Of these, the two largest problems presented involved creating a national database and producing a ‘Top Ten list’ of datasets to be collected by local SRTS constituents.

To establish a national database for SRTS, the committee deemed two things to be necessary: open information and a public mobile application. ‘Open information’ constitutes of two parts: open source software and open data. Open source software allows anyone to look at the underlying software code of a program, and open data would make all SRTS GIS data accessible to everyone. This will allow anyone to both input their own information and suggest improvements to fundamental GIS tools.  According to the SRTS National Partnership’s A Framework for GIS and Safe Routes to School:

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“By creating a system that lets the general public contribute data and control how that data is used, a truly collaborative initiative can become reality. The biggest advantage is that users are not locked into a relatively static and private GIS company or tool that would require substantial funding and time to modify.”

Additionally, in order to create a national database, a mobile application is necessary. The app would be accessible to the public and contain geographic data consisting of sidewalks, bicycle lanes and crosswalks. The app would also be able to produce quality maps and allow users to upload data. A Framework for GIS and Safe Routes to School declares that the ability to upload from anywhere is important because the easier information is to enter, the more frequently users will participate. Additionally, GIS information is more likely to be accurate if entered on location.

A Safe Route to School map created by the City of Santa Clara GIS.
A Safe Route to School map created by the City of Santa Clara GIS.

A ‘Top Ten’ list would ensure that data from across the country is uniformly collected and compared accurately. The list would consist of essential datasets for communities to put together.  The datasets were selected because they contain information that most communities either currently collect or can easily obtain without too much additional effort. The data will be collected during the initial assessment of walkability and bikeability in the form of a community survey.

Questions on the community survey were designed to yield quantitative, measurable answers.  Each topic in the Top Ten list includes a primary question and occasionally, a secondary question.  For instance, SRTS wants to develop a bicycle facilities dataset. The primary question in this topic is ‘are there places to safely ride a bicycle?’ and the secondary question is ‘are there places to park a bicycle securely?’ The remaining Top Ten list categories are level of comfort, presence of a sidewalk, intersections, school location and student catchment areas, speed, collision data, health indicators, existing patterns, and crime data. The surveys to measure these will be either distributed within a specified distance of all schools or throughout each SRTS community.  The main issue regarding mandating Top Ten datasets resides in low income communities: some communities do not have the ability to apply for grant funding or collect data because of a lack of staffing and resources. SRTS will look into offering assistance to these communities.

Current information regarding Safe Routes to School’s GIS initiatives can be found on the Safe Routes to School website.

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About the author
Tracy Dash
Tracy Dash is a GIS specialist with a surveying company near Jacksonville, Florida. Dash holds an undergraduate degree in Sustainable Design, and a graduate certificate in GIS.