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Roads Around Schools Are Unsafe, Principals Say. Here’s What to Do About It

More than a third of public school leaders believe the traffic patterns around their buildings threaten students’ safety as they travel to school, according to a recent survey.

Thirty-eight percent of school leaders reported that they “moderately” or “strongly” agreed that the traffic patterns around their buildings “pose a threat to their students’ physical safety” during their daily commutes, according to the findings from the most recent National Center for Education Statistics’ School Pulse Panel, a bimonthly survey on various education-related topics.

A minority of school leaders reported having crossing guards, bike lanes, and traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps—all of which could improve pedestrian safety and reduce students’ and parents’ reliance on cars, thereby reducing traffic at the start of school and during dismissal.

The current data come from a nationally representative group of leaders from more than 1,700 schools from every state and Washington, D.C., who were surveyed in April.

“This is a widespread, shared worry by families and and by school staff,” said Nancy Pullen-Seufert, the director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School. “We all want to live in communities where people feel safe having their children go to school and come home again safely.”

Aside from weather, children’s ages, and the distance from home to school, the school leaders reported that parents have cited factors including traffic conditions, a lack of safety measures like sidewalks and crossing guards, and crime around the school as barriers to their children walking or biking to school.

The ability to get to school safely is paramount to children’s ability to learn, Pullen-Seufert said, and summer is the perfect time to start laying the groundwork for a safer commute. That’s especially true as more parents have bucked the bus to drive their children to school, especially in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In addition, over the long term, more schools have been built outside of densely populated neighborhoods in places where land is less expensive and more plentiful, the Washington Post reported earlier this year.

About 33 percent of students were dropped off by a car on a typical school day, according to the school leaders who responded to the survey. Approximately 17 percent of students walked or rode a bike, scooter, or skateboard to school on a typical day. Forty percent rode the bus.

Many aspects of the traffic patterns around schools are out of school and district leaders’ hands. The roads are usually controlled and maintained by either local or state entities, which dictate speed limits and provide funding for features such as crosswalks. It’s important school leaders build relationships with the agencies that manage roadways and hold regular meetings to discuss problems and requests to improve safety, Pullen-Seufert said.

But there are additional steps schools can take, she said.

Schools should consider designating “remote dropoff locations” a short distance away from the building, Pullen-Seufert said. These spots, where parents can park and then walk their children the rest of the way to school, or where teachers or other volunteers can meet students and walk with them, can lessen traffic in the school’s immediate vicinity.

The concept also allows children to start their day with some physical activity, which research has shown can improve academic outcomes, Pullen-Seufert said.

Simple measures that increase pedestrian safety can go a long way in encouraging families to be less dependent on vehicles, thereby reducing traffic around schools.

Less than half of schools—41 percent—have a crossing guard working on the immediately surrounding streets, the survey found. Elementary schools, suburban schools, schools with student bodies made up of more than 75 percent students of color, and schools with enrollments of 300 to 500 students were more likely to have crossing guards, according to the survey.

Some schools have blocked off the roads directly in front of their buildings to cars so they’re only open to walkers and bikers, Pullen-Seufert said.

Along with reducing traffic at school, such efforts bolster pedestrian safety and help create a culture that encourages and prioritizes walking and biking, she said.

Seventy-nine percent of public school leaders reported having sidewalks on the roads around their schools; 35 percent reported having traffic-calming measures, such as speed bumps; and 19 percent reported having bike lanes.

Schools can also provide ample bike racks, let students and families know about safe walking routes during back-to-school events, and consider dismissing students who walk or bike first, Pullen-Seufert said.

“If you privilege students who are walking and biking to leave first, instead of, say, dismissing bus or car riders first, that encourages families to take advantage,” she said.

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