Safe Routes to School and Vision Zero

Los Angeles’ commitment to the safety of children



In Los Angeles, SRTS is a core strategy of Vision Zero Los Angeles. In 2017, the National Center gave its first Vision Zero for Youth Leadership Award to recognize Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King for their commitment to children’s safety, Vision Zero and Safe Routes to School. The data-driven approach, the culture of safety its SRTS program works to cultivate, its focus on traffic calming and the partnership between the city and school district offer strategies other cities could adopt in how to prioritize children’s safety within Vision Zero or transportation safety initiatives.

On Oct 4, 2017, children, parents, community leaders working at many levels, including the City of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and school officials including Los Angeles Unified School District School Board President Monica Garcia, filled the sidewalks to walk to Magnolia Avenue Elementary School together. They were celebrating walking to school and the children and families who get around their city on foot every day. And they were talking about the importance of safety and the responsibilities adults have in making the trip to school as safe as possible. This brief event encapsulated work that has been underway for several years. As the City of Los Angeles (L.A.) works to create safer streets through Vision Zero LA, the foundation laid in 2012 by its Safe Routes to School program has helped to lead the way.

L.A. is a dynamic city of more than four million residents. Like other major metropolitan cities, L.A. must meet the tremendous transportation needs of those who work, live, study and play there. This includes the students of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the country.   Also like other cities, L.A. is facing the toll of lives lost on its streets, where more than 200 die every year. Nearly half of these traffic deaths since 2009 have been pedestrians.[i]

In 2015, Mayor Garcetti announced the city’s commitment to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025 through Vision Zero Los Angeles.  Vision Zero LA strongly draws upon methods and goals originally set by Safe Routes to School (SRTS). The city’s approach to Vision Zero with a focus on the safety of its children and youth, makes L.A. a model of how Vision Zero for Youth can work.

The National Center for Safe Routes to School’s Vision Zero for Youth approach encourages communities to prioritize the safety of child and youth pedestrians and bicyclists by focusing safety improvements and slowing traffic speeds near schools and other places where they travel on foot or by bike. Building from the strategies and successes of the Federal SRTS program and local communities implementing SRTS, Vision Zero for Youth recognizes that children deserve special protection and that starting with children can be the catalyst to get support that will benefit all ages. Mayor Garcetti articulated these points in his introductory letter for the 2016 SRTS Action Plan when he stated, “Children should be able to make their way to and from school safely. Together we can ensure that safe travels to and from school is a top priority, and make Los Angeles a safer place for everyone traveling through our city.”[ii]


Data-driven approach

Vision Zero LA launched in 2014 using a method to identify and address safety needs that had been cultivated in the years before through the work of Safe Routes to School. With SRTS, the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) utilized data to inform decision making on where to prioritize changes in the city. The focus first went to schools that had the greatest needs. The city’s Safe Routes to School team used the number of crashes involving people walking and biking, the proportion of students living in a walkable proximity to the school and equity criteria to develop a list of the top 50 schools to target with safety improvements.  By identifying the priority schools, LADOT has been able to make headway in obtaining funding and placing infrastructure where it was needed most. Messaging through Safe Routes to School also helped facilitate action by showing the benefits to children in the city.

Vision Zero LA developed the High Injury Network; streets identified as the most in need of safety improvements. Though based on different indicators, creating the High Injury Network relied on the early legwork of Safe Routes to School that helped to create an environment ready to accept and move with a data-based approach, reinforcing the efforts of Safe Routes to School and support the newly adopted efforts of Vision Zero.

While SRTS primed the city for a data-driven process, data also showed that priority schools identified by SRTS also matched the wider areas Vision Zero LA began targeting. The High Injury Network is comprised of 7,500 miles of streets with 86 percent of the city’s fatalities that involve pedestrians. The 50 schools identified as top priority by Safe Routes to School fall within a quarter mile radius of this network. This alignment shows that the goals of Vision Zero are the goals of Safe Routes to School.

Recognizing that Vision Zero and Safe Routes to School have joint priorities for LA, the Vision Zero LA plan integrates the goal of improving safety at the top 50 schools. This includes benchmarks set in the plan to complete Safe Routes to School projects at each of the schools by 2025. This integration makes Safe Routes to School and Vision Zero a united force for improving safety throughout the city. LADOT is already improving infrastructure with low cost improvements including upgrades to crosswalks, speed feedback signs, extended pedestrian signal timing, and striping and delineators that effect curb extensions to tighten intersections. In the 2016 Safe Routes to School Action Plan and Progress Report objectives laid out to meet the needs of the top 50 schools also align with the goals set by Vision Zero LA.


Culture of safety

Cities across the country face the challenge of changing individual and organizational practices from an acceptance of traffic deaths as inevitable to feeling an imperative to prevent them, whether that’s through how street improvements are prioritized and funded or whether a driver feels it’s acceptable to exceed the speed limit.  In Los Angeles, this challenge continues. However, the efforts by Safe Routes to School and Vision Zero LA have helped create a climate in city government where safety is a primary focus. Safe Routes to School gave a way to talk about and address safety. According to Valerie Watson, supervising transportation planner at the LADOT, “SRTS gave us a framework to talk about street safety in a more holistic way,” shifting the conversation from not just spot street improvements but network improvements. This has resonated both within agencies, including city government and the school district, and with the public.  Margot Ocañas, SRTS Program Coordinator for the LADOT points out, “the messaging of Safe Routes to School is something people can understand; the public, elected officials, and others who work to get street improvements in place.  It resonates more when you humanize the issue.”  Lieutenant Aaron Pisarzewicz with the Los Angeles School Police Department observed that when he and other officers were educating drivers about SRTS and what drivers can do to help keep pedestrians and bicyclists safe, “people appreciated the fact that we were out there concerned about safety.”


Focus on traffic calming

Action through the schools has helped accelerate bringing the safety focus to the neighborhood level. Speed is a factor in many traffic collisions and resulting injuries and deaths. The Safe Routes to School program, through its partnership with LAUSD Police Department, has focused enforcement in places where child pedestrians have been hit near schools and initiated a pilot of School Safety Zones with speed limits lowered to 15 mph near 11 schools.  At neighborhood meetings, the proposed speed limit lowering received “overwhelmingly positive response when we explained it was dedicated to keeping students safe,” recounted Lieutenant Pisarzewicz.  The Safe Routes to School program has also used a citywide public education campaign, safety trainings for students and traffic calming to support norms for safer behaviors.  Reflecting on the role of SRTS and Vision Zero LA, LAUSD operations coordinator Michelle Gorsuch notes, “SRTS helps bring awareness to the issue of safety. The awareness piece alone might help change behavior.”  Widespread Walk to School Day events – 183 L.A. schools organized events in 2017 – promote walking and bring attention to safety.   Lt. Pisarzewicz recounted that on the most recent Walk to School Day one school administrator observed to him, “I can’t believe how wonderful everyone is driving today just by seeing you here.” 


Strong partnership between the city and the school district

In 2016, the L.A. Unified School District unanimously passed a resolution in support of Safe Routes to School, Vision Zero, and Walk to School Day. The resolution recognizes the benefit of walking and biking school, both in terms of the physical activity added to a child’s day and the potential for improving air quality around schools by reducing congestion. With this recognition, the LAUSD pledged to work with parents and school employees to advocate for the safety needs of children walking and biking to school and provide educational opportunities to encourage safety. The resolution also included tighter collaboration between the schools and the city, both for Safe Routes to School and Vision Zero LA. As Superintendent King noted in her introductory letter in the 2016 SRTS Action Plan, “Students who feel safe and secure on their journey to school are more likely to arrive to school ready to learn.”

While the drive to improve safety moves forward at the administrative level, work on the ground at each school has engaged parents and community members, giving them a voice in improving the walking and biking environment for their children. This engagement can contribute greatly to building community support that in turn reinforces political will. Some cities have seen parts of Vision Zero plans become contentious. With a focus on children and community level engagements, realizing a safer space for children to walk or bike to school can help to unite community members around issues that affect safety, like speeding traffic.

As part of its action plan, the Safe Routes to School program is completing walking assessments at each of the top 50 schools. In each walking assessment parents, representatives of the school, and city staff walk the streets near the school, identifying safety needs.  Parents are, as Ms. Watson describes, “built-in participants in the planning process,” pointing out areas of specific concern for their children’s routes to school.  Neighborhoods are already seeing street improvements, helping community members to see that their participation leads to action.  All LAUSD schools receive school district level support and encouragement to participate in Walk to School Day. As one of the operations coordinators for the school district, Michelle Gorsuch interacts with schools and parents and serves as a linkage in showing the school district’s support for SRTS. “Knowing that not only schools but LADOT and City of L.A. are doing what they can to keep kids safe seems to help in getting principal support. When they see street improvements, the principals and parents see the clear and obvious benefit,” says Ms. Gorsuch.  While she encourages principals to hold Walk to School Day events to bring awareness to the need for safe driving and the benefits of walking, she also talks to parents about SRTS and planned street improvements. In addition, quarterly meetings bring together L.A. Police Department, LAUSD Police Department, community agencies and other school district personnel to talk about a broad range of safety concerns and offer a venue for problem solving including issues related to walking and biking to school. 

As some cities evaluate their current progress on Vision Zero and other cities consider launching Vision Zero, LA’s example serves as a model for integrating a focus on youth. SRTS has provided a base for growing Vision Zero in L.A. while also forming collaborations that ensures a focus on children’s safety is a core component of a Vision Zero plan that benefits all people in the city, creating, as Ms. Watson puts it, “the city we all deserve.”

[i] Vision Zero Los Angeles: The Facts. (2015). Retrieved from

[ii] Vision Zero Los Angeles Action Plan. (2017). Retrieved from