In the past year, three crosswalks monitored by the Best Foot Forward program in Osceola County have seen significant increases in driver yield rates after the installation of rectangular rapid-flashing beacons (RRFBs).
The Snowball Effect
As the adage goes, “When I was your age, I had to walk to school uphill both ways, barefoot in the snow”. While comical, it is true that children are walking to school less than prior generations. Just 13% of children are walking or biking to school these days, down from 50% in 1969, according to the CDC. Why do we care? The effects of this adversely impact everyone, increasing traffic congestion and air pollution, while decreasing safety for bicyclists and pedestrians in communities. Less children walking or biking to school also contributes to the rising rates of childhood obesity and leads to health problems later in life.
It’s not their fault though. There are several factors that contribute to the reduction in biking or walking to school. In a sort of cyclical effect, as traffic volumes around schools increase, parents or guardians feel less and less comfortable letting their children walk or ride bikes to school. There’s also the missing necessary infrastructure like sidewalks or streetlights that inhibit kids from getting to school safely.
Osceola County has more than 212 miles of sidewalk gaps within its jurisdiction. As part of the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program, funded by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Osceola County government is tackling the problem by prioritizing eliminating those sidewalk gaps within the 2-mile radius of several schools to ensure a safe passage for children biking and walking.
Safe Routes to School
Safe Routes to School aims to make walking and biking to school easier for primary and secondary school students. Walking and biking to school helps children feel more connected to their community, increases their confidence, and studies show that children who bike or walk to school perform measurably better on work that demands concentration. Investing in Safe Routes roadway infrastructure can also help connect existing bicycle and pedestrian networks, providing more active travel and recreation opportunities for the community as a whole.
This year, Osceola County has identified Neptune Middle and a continued focus on Hickory Tree Elementary (Phase 3 & 4) for their Safe Routes to School applications. The proposed sidewalk connections would increase walking or biking access for approximately 18% of the school’s population.
New in this year’s SRTS application, Osceola County has prioritized the completion of the sidewalk gap, from Ames Haven Road and Delmar Avenue to Patricia Street and Florence Drive to connect to the existing sidewalk on US-192 (approximately 3,150 feet in length). This would enable an additional 82 students from the nearby neighborhood Emerald Lake Colony to walk or bike to Neptune Middle School.
Hickory Tree Elementary
Phases 3 and 4 are similar to the 2021 SRTS application but have been split into two phases. This year, Phase 3 proposes the construction of a five-foot sidewalk connection on the south side of Jan Lan Boulevard from Hickory Tree Road to Englewood Drive (approximately 2,230 feet in length). This sidewalk will connect to the previous year’s Phase 2 sidewalk project on Englewood Drive. Phase 3 improvements would enable access by bike or on foot for an additional 45 students.
Phase 4 includes the construction of a five-foot sidewalk on the south side of Jan Lan Boulevard from Englewood Drive to Old Hickory Tree Road (approximately 3,080 feet in length). Phase 4 improvements would enable access by bike or on foot for an additional 79 students.
The 5 E’s
Through the Best Foot Forward program (BFF), administered by Bike/Walk Central Florida, the coalition has used the 5 E’s approach to maximize the impact of the SRTS program for these schools. Crosswalks near the schools were identified for targeted efforts including field safety audits and monitoring of the number of drivers observing the driver yield law, high-visibility enforcement, and outreach to people in the nearby community.
The 5 E’s of SRTS
Education + Encouragement
In 2022, the Best Foot Forward program made several targeted outreach efforts in the community near Hickory Tree Elementary and Neptune Middle Schools.
In February, the BFF outreach team presented to 8 kids and 4 adults at the Hopkins Park After School Program where they learned about signaling when riding a bike, and distracted driving. The children received pedometers and blinking bracelets to encourage better walking habits.
In March, the BFF team visited Hickory Tree Elementary School six separate times to ensure all 665 students received education on their responsibilities as pedestrians. A rural community with limited sidewalks and no crossing guards, students were taught the basics of walking safely, like facing the traffic and looking both ways before crossing a road.
BFF also partnered with the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office in March for Community Appreciation Day near Neptune Middle School where more than 330 people were reminded of the Driver Yield Law and over 700 materials on bike/ped education were distributed. 63 children were fitted and provided free helmets.
To follow up on the March presentations, 339 students at Hickory Tree Elementary were fitted with free helmets in April and May. There, teachers shared the news of a recent crash involving a wheelchair-bound pedestrian and stressed the importance of sidewalks for all along Old Hickory Tree Road and the need for a school crossing guard.
Residents of Osceola County also attended two community-wide events promoting biking and walking. At the St. Cloud Cyclovia Culinary Bike Tour, nearly 50 riders participated in a five-mile, seven-restaurant guided bicycle tour. The event aimed to highlight the benefits of multi-modal transportation options along the 10th Street Complete Streets Study.
The newly installed rectangular rapid-flashing beacons (RRFBs) were highlighted at Experience Osceola at St. Cloud Lakefront Park. Information was shared with drivers about the Florida law, requiring drivers to stop for people in marked crosswalks. The BFF team was able to fit 64 people with new bicycle helmets and learned stories from the public about pedestrian-related crashes that impacted their friends, family, or neighbors. This event was well attended by several partners including Commissioner Cheryl Grieb.
The Evaluation “E” is used in Safe Routes to School projects to measure successes and shortcomings. SRTS programs benefit from continuous evaluation. As a result, Osceola County and the Best Foot Forward program selected the following crosswalks to monitor the percentage of drivers yielding to pedestrians over time to quantify the positive impacts of the other “E” efforts.
- Old Hickory Tree Rd. S. of Gary Dr.
- Neptune Rd. at Ames Haven Rd.
- Neptune Rd. at Sergeant Graham Dr.
These crosswalks originally had an average of less than 50% of drivers yielding for pedestrians, also referred to as the driver yield rate, meaning that not even half of drivers were stopping for pedestrians in the marked crosswalks near schools or trail crossings, as Florida law requires. And with speed limits of 35-45 miles per hour, nearly 9 out of 10 pedestrians hit by cars at those speeds would be killed.
Installation of a rectangular rapid-flashing beacon (RRFB) at Neptune Road at Ames Haven Road increased the driver yield rate from 45% to 85% in 2020, a great example to show that engineering changes and infrastructure improvements are a crucial component to the increase in comfort and safety of people traveling on foot or bicycle. Just as Osceola County hopes to do with the proposed sidewalk connections, moving the community one step (or several) closer to safety.