Ways to Collect Information
There are five ways often used by Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs to collect information: tallies/counts, surveys, observations and audits, interviews and existing data sources.
Tally forms are simply ways to count numbers of people or things. Tally forms can answer a question that every SRTS program needs to be able to answer: How do students travel to and from school? Tallies can be used to count the number of children traveling to and from school using different modes of travel, such as walking, bicycling, bus, private vehicle, etc. Travel behavior enables a program to measure changes after SRTS activities. It also provides a means of identifying which modes of travel to target and gives a general understanding of the school travel environment.
School Travel Tally Forms
Student travel tally forms developed by the National Center for Safe Routes to School are available for download and use. There is a 1-page tally sheet that teachers complete and online tools that generate a cumulative report for the entire school. Basic steps for use are to the right.
Surveys or questionnaires are commonly used in evaluation. They provide a low-cost way to obtain information from many people in a relatively short amount of time, and they allow responses to be anonymous. Surveys may be distributed in many ways such as paper and pencil, telephone, e-mail messages, or over the Internet. Questions for a survey need to be carefully written and ideally pre-tested with potential respondents to be sure that the questions are understandable and that the answers will provide the kind of information sought. Entering survey data and generating results can be time consuming. The parent survey (see box at right) developed by the National Center for Safe Routes to School has a Web-based entry tool that automatically summarizes results.
Parent surveys can answer the question: What are the attitudes and issues that may influence how students get to and from school? Understanding why students are or are not walking and bicycling is important. A survey may reveal that parents or caregivers perceive it is unsafe for their children to walk or bicycle. Then the job for a local program is to determine if the perception is reality. If safety is an issue, strategies to fix the unsafe conditions are needed. If it is a perception of a safety issue rather than a real danger, then strategies to correct such misperceptions are needed. Without this information, the local program might focus efforts on an issue that will not result in significant improvements.
A parent survey developed by the National Center for Safe Routes to School is available for download and use. The survey includes questions about what affects parents’ decisions to let children walk or bicycle to school, the presence of factors that might influence parents’ decisions, and parents’ perceptions of safety related to walking or bicycling to school.
Completion of the survey requires about 5 to 10 minutes. Basic steps for use are at right.
3. Observations and Audits
Information can be gathered by both observing the physical environment and the behaviors of people like pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers. There are many existing tools available, such as walkability and bikeability checklists and instructions for conducting a walk or bicycle audit. The tools range from those designed for use by the general public to detailed, technical audits intended for transportation professionals.
This may include interviewing people one-on-one or in groups. Individual interviews may be informal, such as chatting with parents when they drop off children at school, or formal interviews with a principal, town planner, or another stakeholder using pre-planned questions. A benefit of interviewing is that it will render more specific information about a person’s experience, opinions or knowledge than a survey. On the other hand, it can be time consuming and responses are not necessarily anonymous.
5. Existing Data Sources
Existing data sources can reveal important information, especially before a program begins. There are many potential sources with a variety of helpful information. Statistics about pedestrian and bicycle crashes may be available from local or state injury prevention programs, hospitals or law enforcement agencies. The school or town may already have a walking route map, and potentially, the school or local health agency may already ask students about their attitudes and behaviors regarding physical activity which would eliminate the need to collect some data. The school may also have records that reveal how many students live within walking and bicycling distance.
There are four important questions to consider during the entire process of evaluation. These four questions summarize key evaluation standards of utility, feasibility, accuracy and propriety which are important to consider before moving forward with an evaluation plan.
Is the evaluation useful?
The amount and type of information collected should meet the needs of those who intend to use the evaluation findings. If not, there is no need to collect the data. For example, collecting student body weight data would only make sense if the program included increasing physical activity among its goals.
Is the evaluation feasible?
The evaluation should be possible and realistic to complete. The information must be collectable within the needed timeframe and costs must fall within a reasonable budget.
Is the evaluation accurate?
The evaluation findings should be correct. For example, if an observation of student arrival only counted students arriving on one street but not another street, then the findings would not be a complete, true picture of student travel.
Is the evaluation fair?
The evaluation has to be conducted with awareness of the rights of the people involved in the program. For example, no one should be singled out or made to feel uncomfortable because of how they respond to a question.
Working with Schools
Data collection, such as student travel to and from school or surveys of parents, will require close coordination with the school. For example, schools may have rules about collecting information from students and it will require time from teachers, school staff and administration in order for data collection to be a success.
Collecting data from students can be challenging. Be aware that data are routinely collected from students to meet state requirements and additional requests may be difficult to accommodate. Furthermore, parent permission may be needed before surveying students. The following tips come from program implementers who have fostered relationships that have eased the way for data collection:
- Learn and act on the permission requirements early if students are to be surveyed.
- Develop a relationship with and gain the understanding of the school board and school principal as to why Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is important and how data collection will help.
- Learn what data is already being collected in what manner and see if there is a way to coordinate efforts.
- Find a key supporter of the SRTS data collection efforts in the administrative office.