Youth-led groups taking action for road safety and calling for change

Youth in high school and early adulthood across the country are having an impact on safe walking and biking in their communities. They are encouraging more walking and biking and advocating for infrastructure improvements and policy change, all to create safer, more livable communities for everyone. Youth organizations have a long track record of caring about road safety. Many young leaders were spurred to action after a traffic crash that impacted their school community. Some organizations are youth-led, others have active adult advisors. Some focus on their school, others are active with their cities. And their aims are varied: they may encourage more bicycling, walking and transit use or improve teen driver safety.

The National Center for Safe Routes to School (National Center) Vision Zero for Youth youth engagement team interviewed 14 high school and young adult road safety organizations to better understand the impact youth are having in their communities; to highlight the ways that communities are benefitting from their efforts; and to identify types of support or training these groups need to reach their potential. The team also examined the challenges that youth-led groups face in sustaining a changing membership.

The youth engagement team is comprised of two youth road safety activists with experience in advocacy and grassroots organizing who were leaders for road safety while in high school and two National Center staff with extensive experience in youth active travel. The youth activists interviewed young leaders, city youth engagement advisors, nonprofit youth advisors, and local advocacy group leaders between October and December in 2021. Interviewees were asked for their perspective on what has and has not worked in their organizations in terms of youth engagement regarding organizational structure, youth leadership structure, campaign development, and current policy change opportunities. Several themes emerged:

Why youth care about road safety

Youth-led groups appeared to fit into two main categories for why they became involved:

  1. Youth-led groups formed in response to a recent traffic crash.
  2. Youth-led groups sought a cause to rally around and transportation safety was a compelling cause that fit their interests or skills.

Several groups who stated that the group formed as a response to a crash went on to be part of significant traffic safety improvements.

Engaging in infrastructure improvement and policy change

Youth-led groups are seeking ways to impact their communities. Some are already partnering with city governments to work towards change. Infrastructure improvements such as traffic calming and policy change such as lowering speed limits are proven strategies to improve safety that youth have been able to influence.

Interview findings indicated that while there is interest in infrastructure improvements and policy change, there is a need to provide information, tools, and training to help youth make that transition. Some young leaders have been engaged in policy change, but most young leaders have not. Only one of 10 young leaders interviewed were familiar with the Safe System approach and the large role infrastructure improvements have in preventing serious injuries and deaths. Some of the successes of those who have been involved in policy change are impressive.

Example: Vision Zero Youth Council
The Vision Zero Youth Council, a student group begun in New York City (NYC) in response to the loss of three classmates in traffic crashes, is an excellent example of youth engaged in policy change. The Council gave a powerful youth voice to the efforts of the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) to reduce speeds around schools.

In 2014, NYC DOT installed speed safety cameras in 140 designated locations around the city, exclusively in school zones. At the time, traffic crashes were the leading cause of injury-related death for children under fourteen years of age. In a review of the first two years of data, NYC DOT found a nearly 8% reduction in overall crashes, and a 15% reduction in injury crashes in locations with safety cameras. In May of 2019, the Governor of New York (below right) signed into law a speed safety camera bill, which expanded the pilot program from 140 school zones to 750, with extended hours of use. The changes permitted camera placement within one quarter mile of schools, allowing the City to place them on some of the busier arterials that are often more dangerous than the streets on which schools are located. NYC DOT credited the Vision Zero Youth Council for providing the youth voice that was so valuable in creating public support for this policy change. The Vision Zero Youth Council took part in lobbying days at the New York State Senate in Albany, organized rallies (below right), and spearheaded a petition that received over 600 signatures from high school students across the city in just three days.

Left: Vision Zero Youth Council holding a rally for the speed safety bill. Source: FIA Foundation. Right: Governor Cuomo signing bill into law. Source: Kevin P. Coughlin, State of New York.

Going beyond peer education

SFMTA Youth Transportation Advisory Board Meeting. Source: SFMTA.

According to the National Center’s youth activists, youth want to be meaningfully involved in what they undertake, and this involves a shift from simply having youth present to incorporating youth voices in transportation decisions. This means establishing relationships with youth, providing resources, tools, knowledge and sharing power through shared decision-making. Municipal leaders, transportation planners, and engineers are involving high school students in walk audits, observations and data collection in their own communities.

Interviews revealed that young leaders have a high degree of interest in policy change and city leader engagement, but many indicated that they lack the resources and tools to do so. Youth leaders expressed that they are mostly seen as peer educators, rather than young people who can actively engage in policy change. Some of these youth-led groups currently focused on peer education expressed interest in using their power to effect long-term policy change. In contrast, one interviewed organization began with the intent of incorporating youth into city government.

Example: San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Youth Transportation Advisory Board
As stated on its website, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Youth Transportation Advisory Board (YTAB) provides opportunities for San Francisco youth to foster their personal and professional development with access to information and a forum to develop the skills and experience required to advocate for themselves and their communities. The following duties and functions form the foundation of YTAB’s work:

  • Identify the unmet needs of San Francisco’s children and youth through examining the existing services, practices, and budgets of the SFMTA.
  • Design and conduct outreach to youth and their communities on SFMTA services and projects to learn from underrepresented groups and begin addressing gaps in dialogue.
  • Develop and deliver recommendations to staff and the Director of Transportation to support or improve SFMTA services.
  • Report to the SFMTA Board of Directors and Director of Transportation on the activities, goals, and accomplishments of YTAB on at least a biannual basis and may give public comment between biannual reports if needed.

Need for the group to be sustainable

Since high school student membership changes every year, turnover is a fact of life. It also is natural for membership to ebb and flow. That is why it is particularly important for youth organizations to have clearly written documentation about past accomplishments and goals for the future. This can change over time, but it is important for change to be based on knowing what the strengths of the organization have been.

Among groups interviewed, the majority do not have their young leaders as the main point-of-contact for engagement and partnerships, but rather adult leaders/advisors serve in this role. Advisors can serve to ensure the sustainability of youth programs as student membership changes.

Groups expressed that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a struggle to build sustainable advocacy programs to engage young people online and in hybrid environments. Many programs entered a dormant period. In contrast, this time provided an opportunity for adult advisors to reflect, evaluate and redefine what it means to meaningfully engage young people in road safety.

Example: National Youth Bicycle Council (NYBC)
NYBC, based in Philadelphia, PA, is a youth-led, non-profit organization that has ambitious goals including forming a connected network of youth biking advocates across the U.S. NYBC recently developed a plan for creating sustainability. Through a workshop with the National Center’s youth engagement team, they developed strategies which include the following:

  • Ensure that all members feel valued, have ownership and a sense of accomplishment.
  • Promote self-led projects in council members’ communities.
  • Use professional development as a way to attract new members.
  • Encourage people who have aged out to act as resource people.
  • Build purpose. Emphasize how young people are the group most affected by road trauma and that they will inherit the outcomes of today’s transportation decisions.
  • Ask: What are areas where youth can step into power? How can I be a part of changing the built environment, creating the policies that protect young bicyclists, and have youth representation in these decisions?
  • Use succession planning to prepare for turnover. Ensure that leaders maintain a running document of information about their positions or knowledge.

Video produced by NYBC highlighting member groups across the country. Source: NYBC.

Interest in career development

Professional development can be an important draw for youth. Valuable experiences include gaining an understanding of how local government works; how to meaningfully create partnerships with local government; and how temporary infrastructure improvements can spur change. Skills include learning how to make business cards, personal websites, LinkedIn pages, and presentations.

In interviews, young leaders expressed a high degree of interest in learning and engaging in road safety career development. Some felt that there is a lack of opportunities for young people to be seen as future professionals in the field and that there were chances for them to engage in more than their school-based or community-based projects. Some groups explained how they had been able to attain these opportunities.

Example: Atlanta Students Advocating for Pedestrians (ASAP)
ASAP is a student-led club based in Atlanta, GA that aims to create a safe environment for pedestrians, especially students. The club began in 2019 in response to a student’s death when a driver struck her while she crossed an intersection near the school. The students held safe street rallies and went to city hall to advocate for changes to the intersection. Working with the city resulted in the improvement of the walk signals, crosswalks, and light timing. They also worked with the city to have a “HAWK” (High-Intensity Activated Cross Walk) signal installed at the entrance to the school allowing pedestrians to cross safely from the bike lane. They work with MARTA, the Atlanta public transit operator, to advocate for a reduced fare for students, and with the Atlanta Department of Transportation to initiate tactical urbanism projects. These students have gained valuable experience in working with elected officials, advocating effectively for transportation changes, and have gained a hands-on understanding of tactical urbanism and street and transit redesign.

Leaders from ASAP (left) met with Councilman Alex Wan to discuss opportunities to improve pedestrian safety for students. ASAP students (right) remove leaves from a bike lane that borders their school. Source: ASAP.

Youth-led groups interviewed

The National Center’s youth engagement team spoke with representatives of the following groups and deeply appreciates the time and thought they offered.

Alliance of New York State YMCAs: New York State Youth Advocates Program
Each YMCA in New York State nominates and brings students grades 8-12 to Albany to participate in an overnight program to learn about the YMCA, the benefit to communities, and how to be an effective advocate.

Atlanta Students Advocating for Pedestrians (ASAP)
ASAP is a student-led and directed club in Atlanta, GA, that aims to give students a platform to voice their concerns and work with local government, non-governmental organizations, and community members to create a safe environment for pedestrians, especially students.

BikePGH: Positive Spin Youth Program
BikePGH, based in Pittsburgh, PA, works to make biking and walking commonplace for all Pittsburghers to improve quality of life and reduce car dependence. Positive Spin is a youth cycling program that teaches youth the skills they need to safely explore their neighborhoods on two wheels.

Colorado Young Drivers Alliance (CYDA)
The Colorado Young Drivers Alliance (CYDA) is a coalition of state and local agencies, non-profits, and private-sector partners that work together to reduce teen motor vehicle crashes and improve teen motor vehicle safety.

Colorado Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) / Teens in the Driver Seat
Teens in the Driver Seat is a peer-to-peer traffic safety program for teens, founded by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Youth Transportation Safety (YTS) Program. The program joined forces with SADD to offer Colorado students access to resources to educate their peers and parents.

Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA)
FCCLA offers programs, contests, scholarships, and opportunities for members to develop real world skills, become college- and career-ready, and make a difference in families, careers, and communities. FCCLA has a national program, Families Acting for Community Traffic Safety, that encourages members to educate adults and peers about traffic safety and support enforcement of local rules and regulations.

Lane Youth Transportation Council
Based in Eugene, OR, the Council provides young people with the opportunity to co-create policies with local transportation staff. Members participate in regional planning and policy meetings with elected officials, working together to support better transportation for people of all ages.

National Youth Bike Council (NYBC)
NYBC is a youth-led, non-profit organization based in Philadelphia that creates a space for youth to feel empowered and have the tools, leadership skills, and youth role models necessary to be leaders in the bicycle community, with the goal of forming a connected network of youth biking advocates across the U.S.

Rhode Island SADD/Global Youth Coalition for Road Safety
The Rhode Island Chapter of SADD, Students Against Destructive Decisions, an organization dedicated to the safety and wellness of all students, is also a member of the Global Youth Coalition for Road Safety. The Global Coalition is an organization of young people from across the world taking action on safer mobility and championing meaningful youth participation in road safety and beyond.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Youth Transportation Advisory Board (YTAB)
Born from a need for more youth participation in public transit community engagement, the YTAB aims to elevate the lived experiences of young people from across the city to better inform city policies and practices. The board is a platform for San Francisco youth to develop the skills and experience required to advocate for themselves and their communities.

Teen Safe Streets Coalition (TSS) / Denver Teen Safe Streets Program
Denver Teen Safe Streets (TSS) is a program organized by City Youth Advisors that facilitates programming and communications based on Denver’s teens’ specific needs on issues relating to teen driving and multimodal transportation. They host several projects throughout the year to engage with teens and inform them about transportation safety.

Valverde Movement Project
The Valverde Movement Project is a collaboration of the Valverde Neighborhood Association, city and regional government, university researchers, and non-profit organizations who are united in a quest to expand community health and wealth in Valverde, CO, through investments in transportation and street safety. The project conducts grassroot organizing to reach and receive feedback from local youth regarding transportation and mobility safety.

Vision Zero Youth Ambassadors Program
Led by Montgomery County Department of Transportation and local partners, the Vision Zero Youth Ambassadors Program equips Montgomery County High school students with road safety fundamentals in eight weeks to complete a group project that encompasses engineering, education, or enforcement topics.

Vision Zero Youth Council (VZYC)
The VZYC, started in New York City with chapters around the world, is a youth-led organization that advocates for safe and sustainable mobility by focusing on the youth experience. The VZYC educates youth on traffic safety and gives them a platform to create real change through partnerships with schools, non-profits, and elected officials.