Safe Routes to School is a national movement that began at the Federal level in 2006 “to improve the health and well-being of children by enabling and encouraging them to walk and bicycle to school.” How this is achieved depends on what’s going on at the local level. The Fort Collins Safe Routes program began in 2007 and has grown over time to become uniquely customized to our city and our kids.

I wrote an article for Growing Up Fort Collins (another blog in the same network as Pedal) that explains the basics of Safe Routes to School here in town. If you’re unfamiliar with the program, or you’re mostly just interested in what it means for your kids, then you might want to check that out. The goal of this post is to dig a little deeper into the mechanics of the program — how does it work? how can Safe Routes help with infrastructure issues? and what’s the end game?

Olander students at Spring Canyon Park

Olander students pedaled through Spring Canyon Park as part of the Safe Routes program.

How does the Safe Routes program work?

Safe Routes is run by the City with assistance and support from Bike Fort Collins. Most of the bicycle education that Safe Routes engages in takes place within the Poudre School District. In addition to hiring staff to teach the classes, Safe Routes also hires local bike mechanics to check every bicycle that’s ridden in the program (whether it belongs to Safe Routes or it was brought to school by a student) before they’re taken out for a ride. There are also folks who volunteer their time (including some of those mechanics). And some P.E. teachers (especially in the upper grades) have started similar training of their own within their classes. All of these organizations, staff, and volunteers work together to make this program a reality in Fort Collins.

There are three things that make the Fort Collins program fairly unique:

  1. Saturation — every elementary and middle school is included in the program and there are opportunities for high school students to take “Smart Cycling” in school. (See the rotation schedule (pdf) to get the full sense of just how awesome and comprehensive this is.)
  2. Empowerment — all ages and abilities are involved, even when that requires some extra creativity (like using a bike “bus” so that an adult can help power or steer the vehicle if a child has physical restrictions that keep them from being able to ride a standard bicycle), and
  3. Meeting Kids Where They Are — taking the Safe Routes program to places where families are, such as Open Streets on June 5th.

Nancy Nichols, the City’s SRTS coordinator, and Dot Dickerson, one of the lead teaching staff for the program, will be presenting on these three cornerstones of equity at this week’s Safe Routes to School national conference in Columbus, Ohio. It’ll be interesting to hear of they learn about any other cities that are doing something similar or whether Fort Collins is truly unique in this.

Talk to me about infrastructure

There’s also an infrastructure component to Safe Routes. Thanks to a transportation bill that was passed by Congress in 2012, Safe Routes programs can now apply for Federal grant money to improve the infrastructure around schools (adding sidewalks, crosswalks, etc.). The state also has a SRTS program with funds available for infrastructure and programming. Tavelli Elementary recently received money from the state to add a multi-use path and crosswalk where students had previously been forced to use the shoulder along Lemay to get to school.

Lincoln Middle School is just behind the trees to the left. A speed sign in either direction helps motorists to slow down.

Lincoln Middle School is just behind the trees to the left.
A speed sign in either direction helps motorists to slow down.

The City’s Safe Routes to School Coordinator can also help advocate for traffic calming measures and other improvements along streets near schools. A couple of years ago the parents at Lincoln Middle School did a SRTS walking survey of the sidewalks, streets, and bike lanes near the school. They noted that the speed of motorists along Vine Drive was often far above the speed limit for that street. So they talked to Nancy, the Safe Routes Coordinator. She then advocated on behalf of the school with the City Streets department, and within a month or so, a speed sign had been added that warns motorists when they are traveling too quickly. And the change is noticeable. Motorists regularly travel over the speed limit along that stretch, but as they approach the sign, their speed quickly decreases.

What’s the end game here?

The Safe Routes to School program is all about making our city safer for kids. In addition to talking about the rules of the road with students, there are also activities and rides that give kids a chance to see the rules in action. And as kids and parents feel more comfortable walking or riding bikes to school, this will lead to reduced congestion and less pollution around schools during drop off and pick up times. So there are some significant immediate benefits to the program. But in my mind, it’s the long terms results that will probably have the greatest impact upon Fort Collins citizens.

Lincoln students get a chance to put their new skills into practice in ride through Old Town.

Lincoln students get a chance to put their new skills into practice in ride through Old Town.

If every child in every elementary school is going to be learning about bike safety and the rules of the road, then that means within a decade we’ll have sixteen year olds getting their licenses who haven’t just learned how to drive a car, but who also already know and have had experience riding a bike around town. That’s huge. Whether or not the rules of the road for bicycling ever make it into the state drivers curriculum, at least our kids will be well prepared to share the road when they become motorists.

And even better than that, our kids will have learned how easy it is to ride a bike in our city. They might have even started walking or biking to school as a result of this program, which means that using alternative transportation will have become second nature to them. So when they reach the age of 16, they might not be in such a rush to get their drivers license because they’ll already have a safe and comfortable system in place for getting around (that doesn’t rely on having a soccer mom chauffeuring them).

We often dream of a world where we pollute less, are healthier, are better connected as a community, and are safe. The Safe Routes to School program is a foundational piece for making that happen here in Fort Collins.


If you would like to volunteer or be trained to become an instructor for our local Safe Routes to School program, contact the City SRTS Coordinator, Nancy Nichols. (Her info is in the upper right hand corner of the Safe Routes page.)