She’s off to school, with helmet on head and doll in tow. (Photo by carfreedays.)

A small federal program is punching holes through the unsafe barricade of freeways, busy roads, and rushed drivers that surround the nation’s schools. Yet despite the program’s success, Congress is now threatening to terminate it — not to save money, but to redirect its funds toward more car-centric infrastructure.

In 2005, Congress initiated a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) national partnership. The SRTS program coordinates infrastructure improvements across the country to make walking and biking to school safer and more practical for students and educators. By most measures, the program has been a resounding success.

Testifying to Congress about a pilot project, director Deb Hubsmith stated, “In only two years, we documented a 64 percent increase in the number of children walking, a 114 percent increase in the number of students biking, a 91 percent increase in the number of students carpooling, and a 39 percent decrease in the number of children arriving by private car carrying only one student.”

Children represent over 12 percent of pedestrian fatalities. And bicycle-related injuries send over a quarter million children to hospitals annually. But SRTS currently receives just 0.2 percent of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s safety budget — and even that tiny slice is now in jeopardy.

The Senate transportation bill, currently in a conference committee, would relegate SRTS funds to a shared pot called “additional activities.” Depending on the compromise bill’s final language, states may be allowed to shift bike and pedestrian funds to road construction or other priorities. House Republicans would prefer to go one step further, eliminating bike and pedestrian funding altogether.

Walking and biking are inconvenient in the United States compared to most other industrialized nations. Most Americans live in a physical, legal, economic, and social terrain designed over a period of many decades to accommodate motor vehicles above all else, making alternative forms of transportation unpleasant and even unsafe.

For instance, a student environmental group at Bridgewater-Raritan High School in New Jersey raised money for a bike rack only to have their principal reject it, citing safety risks. Similarly, a principal at Island Park Elementary School in Mercer Island, Wash., an avid bicycler herself, vetoed a proposed bike route, pointing out that a fifth-grader had recently been killed while walking his bike through a street crossing. A principal in Walker, Mich., recently suspended a group of students for biking en masse to school.

If Europe’s experience is any guide, the success of bikeable neighborhoods will depend on the ability of communities to establish a bicycling culture. Amsterdam and Copenhagen were not always bike-friendly cities, yet today they embrace bicycling and walking as legitimate and esteemed modes of transportation.

A study [PDF] by researchers at Rutgers University and the European Commission identifies six key steps for planners and policy makers trying to design safe and convenient bikeable and walkable communities:

  1. Improve facilities for walking and cycling
  2. Prioritize urban designs sensitive to the needs of non-motorists
  3. Introduce traffic calming in residential neighborhoods
  4. Place restrictions on motor vehicle use in cities
  5. Deliver rigorous traffic education to both motorists and non-motorists
  6. Strictly enforce traffic regulations protecting pedestrians and bicyclists

The researchers claim that such strategies are flexible to a wide array of neighborhood layouts, simple to institute, and return rapid paybacks in terms of public safety, quality of life, and energy footprints. Furthermore, prioritizing walking and biking policies reduces long-term infrastructure maintenance costs.

If the United States Congress is serious about cutting costs, it may eventually have to stand up to thirsty car-culture lobbies and back infrastructure that pays durable dividends.