An important way to support student health and healthy school environments is by improving walkability and accessibility of the routes children and families use to travel to school. Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a formal strategy for increasing the health and safety of these routes and encouraging more students to walk and bike to school. In 1969, 50 percent of all children walked to school; today, only 15 percent of America's children do so. Successful SRTS programs have helped communities regain some of the active living practices of the past, showing an increase in walking to school by more than 50 percent and in bicycling by more than 25 percent. SRTS not only improves the neighborhood environment to be more conducive to active transportation and living, it also forges partnerships among community stakeholders that may not otherwise work together to make the infrastructure and non-infrastructure improvements that turn SRTS plans into practices. Additionally, recent studies have shown that healthy and fit students make better learners.
To improve opportunities for physical activity in San Marcos, the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) collaborated with the City of San Marcos and the San Marcos Unified School District (SMUSD) to improve walkability and bikeability around three low-income schools by developing a SRTS plan.
In late 2015, HHSA contracted with Circulate San Diego (Circulate) to work with the three partners and lead development of the plan. The plan is intended to augment and complement the City's recently-completed Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, adding a focus on high-need schools where there is a need for greater safety and access for pedestrians and bicyclists.
To begin plan development, Circulate created a site selection process to select the schools that would be featured in the plan. They met with the District and the City to present their recommendations and gather input on these selections. Circulate also developed an outreach process and hosted several community workshops to engage the public in the SRTS plan, including parents and students. These workshops included presentations in English and Spanish explaining the project, and the importance of walkability to the community. Parents, students, and staff were also engaged in a mapping exercise to identify safety concerns around the schools and in the community. These comments were recorded and utilized in the prioritization process.
On September 25, 2015, the plan was unveiled simultaneously in a walk/bike to school day event at the three SMUSD schools incorporated into the plan: Alvin Dunn Elementary, San Marcos Middle, and Woodland Park Middle. The unveiling also featured a map for each school with suggested safe routes for kids to walk or bike to school. The ultimate goal of the plan is two-fold: to create safer routes to school and encourage active transportation.
The walk/bike to school day event celebrating this progress demonstrated the community’s enthusiasm, a promising sight for families that look forward to seeing the SRTS plan implemented. Even in the early morning heat, it seemed like nearly all of Alvin Dunn Elementary School’s 1,200 students took advantage of the opportunity to walk or bike to school.
One of the most important steps of the SRTS plan was to bring together representatives from the City of San Marcos’ engineering department and SMUSD to identify the obstacles to safe walkability and bikeability around the three selected schools. One of the major challenges these two entities faced was identifying and prioritizing infrastructure improvement recommendations in the plan that aligned with the input of students, parents, and principals from each school.
With consistent communication, the partners were able to reduce the logistical challenges associated with gathering input and expertise of many diverse stakeholders. This project was instrumental in nurturing a stronger relationship between SMUSD and the City of San Marcos’ engineering department, setting them up for future collaboration on infrastructure improvements and SRTS implementation.
“It’s really great that we’re working together with the school district to get a complete perspective on the improvements we need to make our routes safer,” said Mike Rafael, a Senior Traffic Engineer at the City of San Marcos. “[This collaboration] is long overdue.”
A plan is only a plan. The key to sustainability is ensuring that the San Marcos SRTS plan gets implemented. Having an official plan that included collaboration with each other, the public health sector, and residents puts the City and SMUSD at an advantage when going after grants to implement elements of the plan. Additionally, crucial to the long-term success of this project are the engineering designs that Healthy Works and Circulate delivered to the city’s engineering department. These designs will be an invaluable part of the funding applications and eventual implementation of the suggested improvements laid out in the SRTS plan. Engineering and traffic specialists working with the project team submitted engineering designs for each of the school’s “Very-High Priority” improvement recommendations, in collaboration with the city’s engineering department, with the clear and ultimate goal that they will go after the funding that will make these improvements possible.
By Hugo Salgado
This material was produced by the California Department of Public Health’s Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Branch with funding from USDA SNAP-Ed, known in California as CalFresh. These institutions are equal opportunity providers and employers. CalFresh provides assistance to low-income households and can help buy nutritious food for better health. For CalFresh information, call 1-877-847-3663. For important nutrition information, visit www.CaChampionsForChange.net.