How do you maximize a small pot of funding from a micro-grant and turn it into a larger project with a bigger product? You build partnerships and tap into programs that offer technical assistance at no cost to the community. That’s what Groundwork Elizabeth and Brand New Day,Inc., accomplished as partner recipients of a Together North Jersey NGO Micro-Grant. Groundwork Elizabeth and Brand New Day joined forces with the New Jersey Safe Routes to School Resource Center and Meadowlink Transportation Management Association to implement a Safe Routes to School project in the Elizabethport neighborhood of Elizabeth NJ. Safe Routes to School is a Federal program managed in New Jersey by the State Department of Transportation (NJDOT) with the goal of enabling and encouraging children, including those with disabilities, to walk and bicycle to school.

The New Jersey Safe Routes to School Resource Center at Rutgers University helps communities find solutions to create safer and more accessible walking and bicycling environments for children and families through research, technical assistance, education and dissemination of information about best practices in policy and design. Meadowlink is one of the State’s eight Transportation Management Associations (TMA) that work with NJDOT and the New Jersey Safe Routes to School Resource Center to provide advice and assistance within their service areas to get programs started that help to create safe walking and bicycling environments for children.

Chris Rodriguez from Meadowlink discusses walkability issues with the team.

Chris Rodriguez from Meadowlink discusses walkability issues with the team.

As a part of their NGO Micro-Grant, Groundwork Elizabeth and Brand New Day chose to implement a Safe Routes to School project in Elizabethport. This activity was highly consistent with the overall goals and eligible activities of the micro-grant program which included funds for undertaking small planning studies that focused on identifying and addressing conditions in the built environment and promoting health and well-being, safe neighborhoods, and safe routes to transit, schools and parks. Safe Routes to School initiatives also closely aligns with Groundwork Elizabeth and Brand New Day’s continuing efforts to connect the youth in Elizabethport to nature and to address to environmental challenges.

A neighborhood school walkability assessment was conducted on Friday October 17, 2014. A walkability assessment is a tool to help schools, parents, students, and community members identify barriers that may make it difficult or dangerous for students to walk to and from school. The assessment evaluates the sidewalk, road crossing and neighborhood conditions around the school, and identifies key safety improvements that can make walking a safer and easier way to travel to school.

Walkability assessment routes were developed by looking at school and youth crash locations. Three routes were developed for the walkability assessment – red, blue, and purple as seen in the image below. The routes served four schools: School 1, 9, 13 and 28. While the crash data shows no fatal incidents in Elizabethport between 2008 and 2012, it does reveal that multiple crashes occurred that resulted in injuries.

Groundwork Elizabeth and Brand New Day brought together over 30 community members to volunteer their time on the afternoon of the walkability assessment. Participants included students, elementary school teachers, public school administrators, neighborhood residents, parents, community leaders, and a Councilwomen, Patricia Perkins-Auguste.

Volunteers were tasked with walking the routes, note taking, and photographing conditions to document the barriers to walkability, as well as identifying things that are currently being done well. Returning from the walkability assessment, volunteers were asked to make a list of what they saw and what they thought needed to be prioritized to improve walkability in Elizabethport. Good examples of crosswalks, street lighting, and commercial activity were recognized, but volunteers pointed out other conditions that did not contribute to health and safety of children. These conditions included poor crosswalk visibility, inadequate pedestrian lighting, missing pedestrian signal heads at signalized intersections, and a lack of school zone signage. Participants also noted broken sidewalks and driveways, open/unlocked/broken cellar doors, cars parked on sidewalks, loitering, truck traffic, and excessive noise (e.g., from trucks and airplanes). Participating kids pointed out that distracted driving was a problem as they were seeing a lot of drivers on cell phones.