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Informing Policy. Advancing Health.

Safe Routes to School: Bike Paths to Better Health?

How did you get to school when you were growing up? What about your children? Today, most Colorado students are driven (39 percent) or take the bus (27 percent). Just 14 percent walk, bicycle or skateboard.

Getting more children walking or “wheeling” to school may be an important step to improve health. This question was discussed at the House Transportation and Energy Committee on Wednesday afternoon. The committee heard testimony for House Bill 14-1301, which directs $3 million in state general funds to continue the Colorado Safe Routes to School Program.

The program, administered by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), has awarded more than $15.2 million in federal funds since 2005 – an average of about 20 grants annually - to increase safe walking and bicycling to school.

A 2012 change in federal transportation legislation will cut funding for state programs beginning in July.

Economists might say that Safe Routes to School addresses both supply and demand issues by funding two types of projects: infrastructure and education.

The majority of funding (about 75 percent) has gone to capital infrastructure projects that improve the “supply” of safe routes by adding or improving sidewalks, crosswalks, bike trails and signage. Educational projects that might increase “demand” for safe routes have included bicycle and walking skills training, collaboration with local law enforcement, and teaching traffic safety to students and parents.

Bill supporters say that improved sidewalks and streets may be what some parents need to encourage their children to be active. More than one of ten (11.9 percent) Colorado children lived in a neighborhood that does not contain sidewalks or walking paths in 2011-12. More than 40 percent did not get any physical activity on local streets or alleys.

HB 1301 changes how grants are awarded, giving consideration for high-need communities as defined by schools in communities having greater than 50 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, which may address disparities. Colorado children in low-income families are not as physically active as those in middle- or high-income families. About 58 percent of Colorado children from families below the poverty line participated in vigorous physical activity in 2012, compared with 74 percent of children from families earning four times the poverty level.

Some say these disparities are partially driven by community design. A national study found that low-income communities were less likely to have pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, street/sidewalk lighting, marked crosswalks and other traffic-calming devices than high income communities.[i]  

At the hearing, Janet Hruby, director of Routt County’s Road and Bridge Department, testified on behalf of HB 1301, citing the health and community benefits of Safe Routes to School funding in rural communities. With many rural schools located in or near downtowns, Hruby said that infrastructure renovations improve both the school and the community’s downtown spaces.

Proponents also testified that Safe Routes to School programs teach young people healthy habits that can last a lifetime. Grantees are required to measure the impact of their programs, with some results suggesting that change is happening. The percentage of children walking and biking to school in the morning increased from 21.3 percent to 25.5 percent while children arriving in a family vehicle decreased from 48.8 percent to 44.7 percent, according to CDOT data on 42 elementary and middle schools that received federal grant money. Some schools have seen walking and biking to school increase by more than 31 percent.

Parent surveys also found that more children are asking permission to walk or bike to and from school, with the highest percentage increase coming from children who live between one and two miles from school. More parents felt that walking and biking to and from school was very healthy and very fun for their child while the percentage of parents who were neutral or saw walking and biking as boring decreased.

Can Safe Routes to School improve health? Studies have been mixed on the impact of whether walking and bicycling to school improves student health. Overall trends suggest a positive relationship between active travel to school and higher levels of physical activity.[ii] With only half of Colorado’s children between ages two and 14 getting the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity, these programs may play an important role.

The House Transportation and Energy Committee voted 11-2 to continue Safe Routes to School, with no opposition testifying at the hearing. Legislators who voted for and against HB 1301 raised the bill’s fiscal note as a primary concern, which requests a $3 million appropriation from the general fund.

The House Appropriations committee will decide next whether the costs outweigh the potential gains.

[i] Bridging The Gap Research Brief. Income Disparities in Street Features that Encourage Walking. March 2012.

[ii] National Center for Safe Routes to School. Safe Routes to School and Health: Understanding the Physical Activity Benefits of Walking and Bicycling to School. September 2010.