Students Have Safer Routes Thanks to Walk-to-School Project in Knox County

As school systems across the country look to reduce operating budgets, transportation is one area that has promising long-term cost-savings potential. Tennessee’s third largest school district, Knox County, with nearly 60,000 students, partnered with the County’s Engineering and Public Works Department to explore transportation cost saving options. With more than 80 schools located within a 508-square-mile radius, the Knox County Department of Engineering and Public Works hired KCI to determine where transportation improvements should be implemented to have the greatest impact on both potential and realized pedestrian activity associated with walk-to-school type trips. Our team created a GIS model for Knox County using fine-grained local student-school data as well as nationally available data to create a distance impedance curve that was adjusted specifically for walk-to-school trips in order to best estimate the impact of distance on walk trip probability.

This project allowed our team to analyze what schools had the most opportunity for walking, which neighborhoods have walking likelihood but few accommodations, and the impacts of suburban school settings.

Bob Murphy, PE, PTOE, RLSVice President, Regional Practice Leader

Bob Murphy, PE, PTOE, RLS

Study, Analysis and Design

The model yielded the likelihood for each student to walk to their zoned school based upon several assumptions. Mapped walking trip estimates allowed capital planners to understand where the greatest pedestrian demand was in relation to the existing sidewalk network. Engineers then worked with the county to further refine a priority schools list, identifying top locations for infrastructure improvements and developing concept plans. The flexible GIS data facilitated evaluation of a number of potential approaches in prioritizing walk-to-school needs, giving the county one more tool to help meet the critical objective of keeping its students both safe and healthy.

Knox County Walk to School GIS Map
Given the large number of schools and students (86 and 59,276, respectively), the variety of land use contexts, and a specific budget allocation for making non-motorized improvements, an automated process was necessary for estimating likely walk-to-school trips and determining sidewalk construction priorities.

With estimates and a general understanding of needs in hand, the second phase of the project commenced. Engineers developed concept plans for a pilot project, which allowed Knox County to define a methodology and process for addressing additional school-related pedestrian safety locations in the future as well as outline a toolbox with a range of effective countermeasures for improving pedestrian safety in general. “We identified low-cost improvements in targeted priority areas,” said Regional Practice Leader and Vice President Bob Murphy, PE, PTOE, RLS. “These included the addition of new sidewalk connections, filling gaps within the existing network, construction or formalization of trails and greenways using easements, identification of key parcels for requiring the installation of sidewalks as development occurs, improving pedestrian crossings, and the development of a neighborhood route and encouragement plan for specific residential areas.”

The next phase was focused on design, bidding and permitting assistance, and construction management. Ultimately from the identified improvements listed above, concept plans were developed for 16.5 miles of sidewalk, 7.3 miles of off-road trails, eight intersection improvements, 12 unsignalized crossing improvements, as well as other miscellaneous improvements.

Community Impact

The study found that 38% of students (over 22,000) lived within a distance deemed not eligible for bus transportation service and an additional 2,600 students had the probability to walk to school if adequate sidewalks existed. The results of the study showed a high value for making key investments in needed sidewalk facilities along with other notable social, economic, and environmental sustainability benefits. The initiative was also important for both the Knox County Department of Health and the Department of Engineering and Public Works. Children and adults are simply not meeting the daily amount of needed physical activity, and simple changes in one’s daily routine are some of the best ways to incrementally increase individuals’ amount of exercise. Moreover, the county experienced growth of approximately 19,000 residents between 2010 and 2015, which largely occurred in previously-underdeveloped areas. This project helped to better tie aspects of growth planning with land use and transportation planning as it relates to the siting of new neighborhood developments and their proximity and access to community services, such as schools, as well as requiring the provision of sidewalk infrastructure as a condition for development.

pedestrian refuge
Improvements included installation of flashing beacons and median refuge areas to provide safer crossing zones.

KCI’s effort also brings livability benefits to neighborhoods in the greater Knoxville and county area. Having safe, non-motorized connections benefits the health of students, brings more people out into the streets resulting in more social engagement between residents, and ensures that the neighborhood is equipped with the infrastructure needed to prosper for years to come. This, in turn, speaks to the overall sustainability of an area given the critical role schools play as neighborhood anchors.

The provision of non-motorized alternatives will also provide a small step in reducing area vehicular emissions in a county that is working to maintain its air quality attainment status. Idling vehicles waste three billion gallons of fuel and generate approximately 30 million tons of CO2 annually across the U.S. More students walking translates to fewer idling vehicles in school drop-off/pick-up queues, as well as shorter timeframes for those that depend on dropping off or picking up their children given their distance to school or lack of bus service.