Creating a Framework for GIS Mapping in Safe Routes to School

Maggie CooperAs Safe Routes to School programs have increased across the country, a clear need for better data management at the national level has become apparent. Many communities have used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping in assessments of the built environment, but because there is not a central place to store data, this information is stuck, in a sense, at the local level. This leads to minimal sharing of GIS success stories and a lack of continuity in data collection on a national scale. In light of this, the Technical Assistance department brought 15 experts from various GIS-related fields to Austin, Texas in April to discuss ways that GIS could be better utilized in Safe Routes to School initiatives and what needs to be done to create a national bike/ped database.

One recommendation the group came up with was to ensure that this national database could be easily accessed via the internet. The best way to do this is to use open source, when the underlying software code is freely available to all users, and open data, when the data is available for anyone to access and use. The biggest advantage to these approaches is that users are not locked to one GIS company or tool and they can access and use data as soon as it has been uploaded.

Once a national database is in place, there needs to be an app for mobile devices that allows advocates, parents, communities and schools to easily assess and map sidewalks, bike lanes and crosswalks, produce professional maps, and upload data. This app is an important component of the database, as information is most likely to be correct when it is entered on site as opposed to being entered at a later date.

In addition to the national database, the group also discussed ways to ensure that data collected across the country can be compared. They recommended a standard list of questions that should be asked when communities assess built environment conditions. While most recommended questions had to do with infrastructure (do sidewalks exist, are crosswalks striped, are bicycle facilities present) they consistently came back to one question: "Do people feel safe walking or riding a bicycle here?" Regardless of the presence/ absence of sidewalks, paths, crosswalks, crossing guards or the traffic calming devices, if people do not feel safe, they are less likely to walk or ride a bicycle. By using GIS to map where people do and do not feel safe, a community can evaluate WHY they feel that way and then address the specific problems.

A report based on this meeting will be released in July, with the expectation that it will foster conversation regarding ways that GIS can assist Safe Routes to School programs. Some recommendations were easy to make, while other topics, such as how to go about creating a national database, will require more discussion with important players in the future.

The Safe Routes Partnership will be hosting a webinar on July 11th from 2:00-3:30pm EST to discuss the recommendations and ideas that came out the meeting. To register for the webinar, click here: