Wayne State University civil engineering faculty members receive Safe Routes to School grant to improve child pedestrian safety

A recent grant awarded to faculty members in Wayne State University’s Transportation Research Group (WSU-TRG) aims to make the neighborhoods near Michigan K-8 schools more pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly while educating students about traffic safety.

Tapan K. Datta, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, and principal investigators and assistant professors of civil and environmental engineering Timothy Gates and Peter T. Savolainen received $190,000 through the Michigan Fitness Foundation as part of a broader initiative sponsored by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The funding will go toward the development of traffic infrastructure improvements and safety education programs in various Michigan K-8 schools as a part of the Safe Routes to School (SR2S) program.

“I am passionate about this program because it is so heavily geared toward children’s safety,” Datta says. “The infrastructure improvements that our group will develop, along with the accompanying educational programs, have the potential to improve the safety of children walking and bicycling to school in Michigan for many years to come.”

The national Safe Routes to School program was created in 2005 with the objective of making it safe, convenient and fun for children to bicycle and walk to school. The initiative also helps ease traffic jams and air pollution, unite neighborhoods and contribute to students’ readiness to learn in school.

In fall 2010, the National Center for Safe Routes to School allocated $11 million for statewide and local SR2S activities, bringing the total funding to $559 million. At least 10,204 schools across the United States have benefited or will benefit from these funds.

The Michigan Department of Transportation announced in August 2010 that 14 Michigan elementary and middle schools in eight counties would receive more than $1.8 million in federal Safe Routes to School funding for safety improvements and education programs. Funding will be used for infrastructure improvements, such as new sidewalks and traffic-calming projects, and non-infrastructure activities that encourage and enable students to walk and bicycle to school.

“Many schools in Michigan were built decades ago, when student travel patterns and vehicle traffic volumes were much different,” Gates says. “Infrastructure improvements are necessary to facilitate and encourage safe travel for children going to and from school. We are excited to assist the SR2S-chosen schools in identifying problems and implementing improvements.”

The WSU-TRG will assess site-specific factors at schools throughout the state and recommend potential improvements, including the construction of sidewalks, pedestrian warning signs and raised crosswalks, and road narrowing. In order to assess the needs of each community, members of the WSU-TRG will conduct walking audits at selected elementary and middle schools assessing the different paths children take to school. The audits will identify locations with a high risk for pedestrian crashes or near-crashes.

Some schools will also receive a K-8 pedestrian safety training software program customized to the layout of the area surrounding their schools. Datta expects to conduct audits of roughly one dozen schools in the next year, but the program template will be available to any school for its own use. The grant will also fund the development and prioritization of future SR2S programs.

The K-8 pedestrian safety training program, which was initially developed by the WSU-TRG as part of a project sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has already been introduced to 10,000 elementary school children in Detroit. The SR2S funding will enable statewide implementation of the program. “Our research has shown that targeted training, coupled with appropriate infrastructure improvements, have the potential to markedly improve pedestrian behavior,” Savolainen says. We look forward to making a contribution toward these positive changes at Michigan schools.”

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