From September to June, mornings in greater Portland’s neighborhoods see a common pageant. Around hundreds of elementary, middle and high schools across the region, kids fill sidewalks and bike routes, or spill out of buses and parents’ cars, trying to get inside before the bell rings.
But that pageant isn’t the same at every school.
In some communities, many students walk or bike. But not every kid has a sidewalk or safe bike route to class. Still others don't walk or bike because parents and educators are understandably concerned about their safety.
How kids get to school matters. Kids that can’t or don’t walk or bike are missing out on what could be a great opportunity for physical activity. Studies also show they can perform better in school.
Meanwhile, car drop-offs can snarl traffic for blocks, adding to growing congestion and creating more hazards for everyone.
A national movement called Safe Routes to School is trying to change that dynamic. More crosswalks, sidewalks and safe bike routes near more schools are part of the vision. So are programs to teach kids how to bike and walk safely, and partnerships with police to enforce speed and crosswalk laws.
Soon, Safe Routes to School will take on a new regional shine in greater Portland. Last year, after a concerted campaign by advocates, educators, parents and students, the Metro Council and Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation directed Metro staff to begin work on a regional Safe Routes to School education and encouragement program. They reserved $1.5 million in federal transportation dollars over two years to set up the program.
The program will partner with communities and school districts around the region to help more kids get to school by foot, bike and bus safely. It will begin in earnest in 2019 when federal funding is expected. But Metro is already preparing.
Metro recently worked with the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and Alta Planning & Design on a report assessing the state of Safe Routes in greater Portland today.
The report, released last fall, is a detailed look at what it’s like to get to school in greater Portland today – and an appraisal of the scale of the work ahead to help more kids get there safely.
Here are a few findings worth knowing now.
You'd need ten Moda Centers to hold all of greater Portland's students.
The report tallies total enrollment of 205,553 students in the region’s public school system. Put together, those students could fill the Moda Center ten times over, or squeeze onto more than 1,000 MAX cars.
And as the region grows, so does the number of students in many school districts.
Every one of those kids has to get to school. How they get there matters for their health as well as safety. Walking for 20 minutes – about a mile – adds up to two-thirds of the daily recommendation for physical activity, and students who walk or bike have higher levels of physical activity and academic performance throughout the day.
Plus, if more kids can find their way by foot, bike or bus, that means fewer cars jamming area roads during the hectic morning commute.
A lot of schools, a lot of stories.
There are 330 public schools in the Portland region, according to the report, split among 17 school districts. The largest by far is Portland Public Schools, with 82 schools. Beaverton comes in second with 50 schools, followed by Hillsboro with 32 and North Clackamas with 27. Riverdale is the region’s smallest district, with two schools, followed by Gladstone with three.
The streets around each of those 330 schools have a major impact on whether walking or biking to school is safe or even allowed by parents.
The report includes a map of walking, biking and transit access to every Portland-area public school, with maps showing nearby sidewalks, bike routes, paths and bus stops.
Room to improve – and common concerns.
There’s plenty of room for improvement.
In a survey of school districts conducted for the report, just one of the region’s 17 school districts, Portland Public Schools, estimated that more than 30 percent of students walk or bike to school daily. Nine districts estimated the percentage at somewhere between 10 and 30 percent, while six districts thought less than 10 percent of their students walk or bike daily.
That would put the area’s students on par with national averages – and a sorry trend. According to the Safe Routes National Partnership, just 13 percent of students nationwide walked or biked to school in 2009, a steep decline from 49 percent in 1969.
Many students live too far to walk or bike to school every day, particularly in bad weather. But what about the thousands of students that do live close enough – say, within a 10-minute walk? Nationally, private vehicles accounted for about half of school trips between a quarter and half-mile in 2009, a fourfold increase in 40 years.
What keeps those kids from walking or biking to class? Three big factors stood out among greater Portland school districts in the survey: parents who don’t want their kids to walk or bike alone; a lack of continuous good sidewalks; and convenience for parents.
And most districts shared parents’ concern for students’ safety. Ten of 12 districts said traffic safety for students was a top concern for them.
More challenges at lower-income schools.
Unfortunately, schools’ needs are closely correlated with their populations – and the disparity reflects broader regional equity challenges.
Schools where more than half of students receive free or reduced price lunches – which are also often schools with more students of color – saw an average of 10 crashes involving a person biking or walking within a mile of the school over five years. Higher-income schools experienced an average of 7.2 crashes per year within a mile.
That’s a 28 percent higher crash rate for lower-income schools.
The report includes a thorough, school-by-school analysis of safety needs, based on the number of nearby streets without sidewalks, crashes, residential density, enrollment, and demographic factors such as income and non-white students.
Presented regionally, the report's maps that bear a striking resemblance to other maps of income and equity concerns in greater Portland – a high need for safer routes to many schools in North Portland, east of 82nd Avenue in Multnomah County and west of Highway 217 in Washington County, and the McLoughlin Boulevard corridor in Clackamas County. By assigning scores to each school, the report helps visualize where investments could provide the most benefit for students and families.
This interactive map shows the scores from the report. Zoom in to see sidewalks and bike facilities mapped near schools.
Programming matters. And it pays off.
Fully two-thirds of school districts in the survey report “significant barriers” to implementing Safe Routes infrastructure improvements. Funding is their top concern.
But while on-the-ground changes can take time, Safe Routes to School has many angles. One of the most important: Working with students and families to help them use sidewalks and bike routes that are already near schools, and increasing traffic enforcement in those areas as well.
About three-quarters of greater Portland’s school districts report they participate in some kind of Safe Routes to School programming. Such programs vary from district to district. They include education for students about their transportation options; events that encourage walking or biking to school; working with local police to enforce school zone speed limits and other traffic safety laws.
Schools in Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, Tigard and North Clackamas County also have Safe Routes coordinators.
School districts, governments and parents work together.
Slightly more than half of the region’s school districts have adopted policies that support Safe Routes to Schools. And most districts, along with many local governments, have developed special plans to identify and prioritize improvements that help kids get to school safely.
Some communities have full- or part-time public employees who focus on Safe Routes efforts. The Portland Bureau of Transportation manages a Safe Routes program that coordinates efforts among all of the schools within its city limits in five districts. The partnership has paid off. PBOT estimates it has increased walking and biking to the city’s schools by 35 percent since 2006. Tigard and Hillsboro also have citywide Safe Routes programs, and Multnomah County coordinates a program for Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village.
Washington County prepared a school access improvement study last year for county roads near schools. North Clackamas and Tigard-Tualatin have completed maps of recommended routes to schools distributed to parents and educators. Several districts have specific action plans for some schools.
Metro has played a role with funding several of these efforts. The Tigard and Multnomah County programs are funded by Metro's Regional Travel Options grants, as is a program at the Beaverton School District. And a number of past regional flexible fund projects have focused on safety near schools.
The Oregon Department of Transportation also has a Safe Routes to School program that includes funding, curricula and other resources for local programs.
Taking steps for safer, healthier kids.
The findings, maps and scores in the report could help leaders and communities invest in improvements and programming where it can make the greatest difference for students. But Safe Routes to School has several facets, from changes in the street to changing awareness for students, parents and commuters. In the rest of this series, we'll learn more about how Safe Routes looks in different communities around greater Portland.
Take the next step
Want to help kids in your community (or family) walk, bike and take transit more? Sign up for the Safe Routes to School Network to stay updated and find out what other parents, teachers and Safe Routes to School coordinators are doing across greater Portland.
Want to learn more about Safe Routes region-wide?
Read the report: