by Daniella Alcedo, Planner at Alta Planning + Design
For 10 years now, Safe Routes to School programs have been going strong in the US. For myself, only a year has passed since I was the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Coordinator for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) Pilot Program, which is now entering its final year. Here are a few things I have learned working with a predominantly Hispanic community as an SRTS Coordinator in Los Angeles:
Tailor your program to your community.
SRTS is a great program creating safe routes for students to get to and from school in a safe way. And safe can mean so many things to so many communities: safe from speeding vehicles, safe from bullies, safe from gangs, and safe from poor infrastructure.
However, SRTS programs have a tendency to focus solely on the health, environmental, and traffic factors. All the online materials and fact sheets reflect this. The national SRTS website hosts a lot of information that has been useful for years and kickstarted this great movement, but it is becoming outdated. Originally, I thought that I had to convey their message, even though it did not feel right for my communities, because the schools and students in our pilot program deal with homelessness, gangs, trash, and broken infrastructure on a daily basis.
Metro gave me the OK to be more creative in my approach and produce informational flyers that addressed the deeper issues in the community. This has helped a great deal and families engage with the material more deeply. If I had simply talked about the benefits of walking and biking when these families already walk and bike—but mostly worry about gangs and homelessness—then I would have created feelings of frustration and isolation. Trust me, I have seen enough rolling eyes to know I shouldn’t bring up the idea of bike trains in a heavily traffic-congested area. Instead, I focus the message on building safe communities. Tailor the SRTS program to your community’s needs and more people will be attending your meetings.
Don’t set yourself to the National SRTS results.
Parent champions—parents who are recruited and trained by the school to volunteer for SRTS events—have been the focal point in making any SRTS program successful and I often feel the pressure to find those parent champions, just like the ones displayed on the national SRTS website. But it was hard to find them when no one attended a parent meeting or bothered to volunteer.
I dug around and found that the issue was deeper than lack of interest: many of my parents have a deep distrust with the school administration due to years of mistreatment and negligence. I have met school staff who are overworked, stressed, or pressured to meet abnormally high school standards. Many have just given up.
I have learned to work with parents, helping them to deal with the inevitable frustrations and to see the bigger picture of SRTS programs. Because of what I have seen and experienced, my mission has changed. I now seek to empower parents to speak up, work together, and get involved in their community to make a positive change. We may not find “parent champions” but we can give someone the confidence they need to take action and isn’t that a better result anyway?
Be optimistic and roll with the punches.
Sometimes it’s hard to practice optimism when plans are going haywire or falling apart. But life is a learning experience and we can’t beat ourselves up when things are outside of our control. Understanding that the work is taking a new path and everything is flexible allows us the opportunity to try something new and different. Like John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
I am thankful for the opportunity to work on this project with a supportive team that comes up with new, creative ideas that are teaching us how to make these programs a real success. I’m excited for the last year of the Metro Safe Routes to School Pilot Program and all the new lessons I will learn.
Read more about active communities in California:
- How to Make Safe Routes to School a Success: Los Angeles - August 25, 2015
- An Urban Planner in Southeast Asia - December 2, 2014