Serving Lower-Income Communities through SRTS
State Challenges and Solutions
Serving low-income communities through the federal Safe Routes to School program is a priority for the Safe Routes Partnership and our State Networks. We hope that this resource will help state advocates to better work with their State DOTs to develop pro-active policies that will assist the most vulnerable communities in planning for, applying for, and implementing Safe Routes to School grants.
Unfortunately, however, there are many challenges associated with applying for an implementing a Safe Routes to School grants. For example, applying for a federally-funded Safe Routes to School (SRTS) award through a State Department of Transportation (DOT) can be a time-consuming endeavor requiring expertise and assistance from local planners and engineers, as well as coordination with the school district and city. Once a project is awarded funding, local award recipients must comply with federal highway regulations, which can require additional expertise and staffing to complete paperwork and submit for approvals. Additionally, the program is operated on a reimbursement basis, meaning that schools and localities must expend the funds and then wait for reimbursement.
These aspects can create challenges for low-income communities in a number of ways. Schools in low-income areas are often understaffed, meaning that their availability to spearhead a Safe Routes to School award may be limited. These schools also face significant challenges in absorbing the costs of carrying out a Safe Routes to School project while waiting for reimbursement. Finally, these communities may lack access to city or county engineering staff with the expertise necessary to implement the project and comply with federal and state regulatory processes.
Yet, low-income schools and communities are often the very institutions where significant numbers of children are already walking to school in areas with dangerous traffic conditions and other threats to personal safety. These schools may also lack the resources to bus children and the parents may be unable to drive, walk or bicycle their children to school. More needs to be done to ensure that Safe Routes to School funding reaches communities that have the greatest needs.
Several states have paid attention to the concerns of low-income schools and communities, and are utilizing different approaches to address these special needs and challenges, in the application process, through planning, and/or through implementation. As the federal Safe Routes to School program is still relatively new, many state Departments of Transportation have chosen different mechanisms or initiatives to help low-income communities. Several types of approaches are identified here:
- Develop an assessment of the state’s low-income schools, and how the current SRTS program is serving those schools. Through doing this analysis, states can better understand the obstacles and set targets for providing funding to the most vulnerable communities.
- Develop a comprehensive initiative specifically for low-income communities. Some states have chosen to develop and fund a special SRTS program to ensure that SRTS infrastructure improvements and programs are implemented in low-income communities, and to learn more about what types of assistance would be most valuable to these communities in future application cycles.
- Carry out a special outreach or awareness campaign. Given the staffing shortages many low-income schools experience, it can require an extra effort to ensure that low-income communities are aware of SRTS awards and consider applying. Some states have carried out special outreach efforts to reach low-income communities.
- Provide funding for planning awards. Another approach that some states use is to provide small planning awards with much-simplified applications. These awards provide funding to help smaller and low-income communities do the initial assessments and develop plans that are necessary for applying for a larger-scale award.
- Award extra points on applications. Some states have chosen to ensure adequate representation of low-income communities by providing extra points or consideration during the application review process if a community or school meets a certain income level criteria or has a minimum percentage of children receiving free or reduced school lunches.
- Offer engineering assistance. Low-income communities can be deterred from applying or can lag in completing a project due to a shortage of engineers or planners. Several states have contracted with statewide planning or engineering firms that provide expertise to low-income communities at the state’s expense, or with costs built in to the award amount, to help them develop plans and carry out SRTS projects.
Given the varying circumstances within states, state Departments of Transportation have different approaches for engaging low-income communities in SRTS. Some states may utilize just one of the best practices identified above, while others may offer a package of initiatives. Examples from twelve state SRTS programs, including contact information, can be found in the SRTS Safe Routes Partnership website’s State Resources section.
Overcoming Obstacles in Underserved Communities, Safe Routes Partnership (2013)
Safe Routes Partnership developed a Low-Income Resource Guide for volunteers and professionals implementing Safe Routes to School in low-income schools and communities.
Arizona SRTS Planning Assistance Program: http://www.azdot.gov/MPD/srts/PlanAsstPrgm.asp
Iowa Traffic Engineering Assistance program: http://www.iowadot.gov/traffic/teap.html
Active Living Research Safe Routes to School web page features reports on low-income communities and equity issues: http://www.activelivingresearch.org/taxonomy/term/208
Active Living Resource Center, Safe Routes To School City-SRTS Pilot Program focused on low-income schools: http://www.activelivingresources.org/saferoutestoschool8.php
Safe Routes Partnership’s Local School Project Evaluation Report, which analyzes programs in ten low-income schools around the country: http://www.saferoutespartnership.org/media/file/Health_Evaluation_Feb_2010.pdf
Pilot evaluation of a walking school bus program in a low-income, urban community. This study was conducted in three diverse, socioeconomically disadvantaged, public elementary schools in Seattle, Washington: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/9/122