The 6 E's of Safe Routes to School: Embracing Equity


The Safe Routes to School movement has evolved in recent years.  Inspired by many factors – changing demographics in America, more professionals of color involved in the Safe Routes to School movement, strong research that sets out the extent and nature of transportation inequities, and deepening organizational, professional, and personal commitments to creating fair communities that support health for everyone – there’s been a real change not only in how the Safe Routes to School movement is talking about equity, but also in what is playing out on the ground.  The movement has recognized that to successfully achieve core goals around increasing the number and safety of kids walking and bicycling to school, it is vital to direct resources and craft programs and policies in ways that address the needs of low-income kids and kids of color.

One key sign of these changes is the move by many Safe Routes to School programs to add an E for equity to the traditional 5 E’s of Safe Routes to School.  Let’s not kid ourselves – outside of the Safe Routes to School movement, no one has heard of the 5 E’s of Safe Routes to School.  But inside the movement, the 5 E’s act as a fairly universal checklist and framework that practitioners use to define a comprehensive Safe Routes to School initiative, making sure that they are covering all the bases necessary to effectively get more kids to school in a healthier and safer manner.  And so, it’s been a welcome development over the past several years to see equity becoming an increasingly established part of the framework, leading to 6 E’s – education, encouragement, engineering, enforcement, evaluation, and equity. 

What do we mean by equity?  Equity recognizes that different people have different barriers to living healthy, fulfilled lives.  In order to allow people to get to the same outcome, we need to understand the different barriers and opportunities that affect different groups, and craft our policies, programs, and overall approaches with those various challenges and needs in mind.  Equity addresses the power imbalances and the lived differences that all too often generate disparate health, educational, and career outcomes for different people – effects that often emerge along lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.  

Equity is different than equality.  Equality is often understood as giving everyone the same thing, while equity means ensuring each person has access to what they need to thrive.  Examples abound that help us understand why that difference matters – equality has been described as giving everyone a pair of shoes, while equity is making sure they have shoes that fit. 

What does it mean to include equity as one of the 6 E’s?  Equity needs to be built into each aspect of a comprehensive Safe Routes to School initiative.  In other words, each E needs to include equity in its analysis and action items.  But equity also needs to be considered separately to ensure that the overall effects of individual considerations are adding up to a meaningful and sufficient investment in the safety and health of low-income students, students of color, and others. 

So what do the Six E’s of Safe Routes to School look like?  Here’s a quick summary of the Six E’s – those key components of a comprehensive, integrated approach – with a brief review of what might be included under each E to integrate equity:

  • Education – Teaching students and community members about the broad range of transportation choices, and making sure they have the skills and know-how to be safe from traffic and crime while walking, bicycling, and using public transportation.  Ensuring that education efforts address equity means assessing who is receiving education services – do the recipients reflect the larger demographic pattern in the community, region, or state? – and whether the content and lessons are engaging and useful for all student groups.
  • Encouragement – Using events and activities to promote walking, bicycling, public transportation, and physical activity.  Encouragement activities can include new partnerships with faith-based groups, civil rights and neighborhood coalitions, and tenants’ organizations, as they build activities like walking school buses, walk to school events, bicycling incentives, and art and active transportation events.  Addressing equity in encouragement means ensuring that encouragement activities are available to low-income students and students of color, as well as designing them to overcome the variety of obstacles to walking and bicycling that different kids experience.  Encouragement activities should effectively influence children from different backgrounds to embrace walking and bicycling. 
  • Engineering – Making physical improvements to the streetscape and built environment that decrease the risk of injury from motor vehicles and discourage crime and violence, increasing street safety for all.  Equity requires community engagement and means that policies and investments ensure that physical improvements address street safety in low-income communities and communities of color, where sidewalks, bike lanes, lighting, and other safety features are often absent.   
  • Enforcement – Partnering with local law enforcement to address traffic and crime concerns in the neighborhoods around schools and along school routes, while ensuring that law enforcement builds trust with communities and does not target students of color, low-income students, or other community residents. By supporting partnerships between community empowerment groups and law enforcement, Safe Routes to School can play a role in working toward enforcement efforts that improve safety and security for everyone. 
  • Evaluation – Assessing which approaches are more or less successful; ensuring that a program or initiative is decreasing health disparities and increasing equity; identifying unintended consequences or opportunities to improve the effectiveness of an approach for a given community.
  • Equity – Ensuring that Safe Routes to School initiatives are benefiting all demographic groups, with particular attention to ensuring safe, healthy, and fair outcomes for students with disabilities, low-income students, Native American students, students of color, female students, LGBTQ students, students whose families speak a language other than English, homeless students, and other demographic groups.

While there is no shortage of work to be done to ensure that Safe Routes to School initiatives are contributing to equity, there is terrific work underway. What is your community doing to make equity a key part of Safe Routes to School? Share your story so we can lift it up with our partners.