Better data collection and accessibility would help advocates get kids walking and biking to school again

How do we get back to a simpler time, when kids physically exerted themselves on the way to school by bicycling or walking, and in the process made themselves healthier, more attentive in class, and happier?

Believe it or not, one answer may be with technology. Through accessible and usable data, advocates can use fact-based priorities to shape walking and bicycling infrastructure – not to mention educational efforts – around schools. A report, “By the Numbers: Using Data to Foster Walking and Biking to School” (PDF), from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, makes the case for holistic data collection, access, and usage in local Safe Routes to School programs.

“But for data to be useful for planning, funding proposals, and implementation 
of Safe Routes to School initiatives, the data needs to be comprehensible,” note lead authors Michelle Lieberman, Marisa Jones, and Sara Zimmerman in their report, which was released this week.

That’s easier said than done. There can be all kinds of barriers to understandable data: a lack of economic resources and internet access, missing technological knowledge, and language barriers, not to mention a shortage of people willing to take on the data-to-storytelling effort at the local level.

“Accessible data means [community members have] the ability to directly institute better programs and initiatives on the ground,” the authors write, adding that it helps equip the community to play an active role in the decision-making process.

SRTS data sources

Useful data to for advocates to collect, as shown the report. Click to enlarge.

This data, however, cover a vast array of issue areas: there is a multitude of information that must be gathered in order to increase active transportation to school (see above graphic). Such data gathering is already being presented in a number of creative ways, as “By the Numbers” documents:

  • The Safe Routes to School program in Solano County, Calif., is using Google Maps to show parents and students the best routes to take to school. Route results also allow parents to mark suggestions and concerns on the map.
  • The City of Los Angeles has a multi-agency initiative called People Street that displays data in user-friendly ways, identifying low-cost, high-impact mobility projects, such as parklets, plazas, and bike corrals.
  • In Arlington County, Va., advocates have used bike-counter data to convince the county to plow the bike trails after they discovered that it wasn’t the winter weather that kept people from riding, but rather the unusable trails.
  • The Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association, which coordinates a regional Safe Routes to School program, recently launched a New Jersey Walking School Bus App that connects families to groups that walk together.
  • Community Commons is an online mapping tool that enables anyone to play with data in order to tell stories and create maps of specific geographic regions containing thousands of data indicators.

These are too often the exceptions, as the need for greater data accessibility comes from the current state of local Safe Routes to School programs, which are left to collect data only on a case-by-case basis. And since the data comes from individual volunteers with clipboards, the authors note that they are typically “stuck” with that area, inaccessible to other advocates in the absence of a centralized site.

The report recommends cities continue to be proactive and transparent with their data and work to create communities of advocates. Several Capital Bikeshare projects from Mobility Lab and Transportation Techies, for example, appear in the report as benefits of sharing and hosting open data: the system’s jurisdictions receive the feedback for free and thereby establish a closer relationship with the bicycling community. Meanwhile, sites such as Open Data Philly can fulfill an essential role as one-stop resources for detailed map analyses.

As generations younger and older alike begin to understand the possibilities by having the facts in hand and the tools to make them comprehensible and actionable, better decisions will begin to happen in many communities. Schools won’t be built at the end of highways, strong infrastructure like protected bike lanes will connect communities to their schools, and parents will understand that driving their kids to school every day isn’t necessarily the best decision.

Open, accessible data, and the communication tools and wide-ranging partnerships they will help create, will ultimately all make students’ routes to school more safe – and even fun.

Photo: Students walk and bike to school in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com)

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Jamie Hilland

“These are too often the exceptions, as the need for greater data accessibility comes from the current state of local Safe Routes to School programs, which are left to collect data only on a case-by-case basis. And since the data comes from individual volunteers with clipboards, the authors note that they are typically “stuck” with that area, inaccessible to other advocates in the absence of a centralized site.”
This is a great point, one we have attempted to overcome with the launch of our app BikeWalkRoll.org (on page 30 of the report). The data is input into the site and is sharable and comparable, resulting in friendly competition and open discussion across borders. Check it out, and let us know your thoughts. Cheers!

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