Engaging youth to advance safer streets for all

By Alison Collard de Beaufort, Lauren Marchetti, Jacob Smith, and Nancy Pullen-Seufert


“We cannot solve our problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

– Albert Einstein



In the United States and across the globe, youth have spurred the evolution of social norms and values. From civil rights to global climate change and the movement to end gun violence, youth have been key changemakers. This is also true for transportation safety. Youth in high school and early adulthood across the country have a long track record of caring about road safety and are having an impact on safe transportation in their communities. Many young leaders were motivated to act after a traffic crash that impacted their school community. They are encouraging more walking and biking and advocating for infrastructure improvements and policy change, all to create safer, more livable communities for everyone.

Meaningful youth engagement is key to these successes and calls for an understanding by both adults and youth of what is needed for successful partnerships. Each can benefit immensely from the other, and can work together to accomplish each of their goals.

This brief guide provides a framework for meaningful engagement of youth in addressing transportation safety. The guide covers:

  • Centering youth and understanding the importance of a youth perspective
  • The definition of meaningful engagement and going beyond a traditional view of youth involvement
  • Youth voices in shaping policies and infrastructure improvements
  • Recommendations and examples

This guide has been designed for youth advocates, city leaders, and transportation professionals, but the research and lessons can be applied to other issues and forms of advocacy for youth. Moreover, while this guide focuses on the United States context, the topic of youth engagement and the need for it is not unique to the United States so the underlying concepts have global relevance.

This guide was developed as part of the Vision Zero for Youth (VZY) initiative led by the National Center for Safe Routes to School (National Center) with funding from the FIA Foundation. VZY encourages cities to prioritize places where youth walk and bike for safety improvements and encourages cities and communities to adopt policy change and infrastructure improvements to help eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. VZY recognizes that starting with youth can be the catalyst to build community support for Vision Zero; that Vision Zero should include a focus on youth; and that youth voices can play an important role in creating safer streets.

The expertise and experience of two youth activists on the Vision Zero for Youth team are at the heart of this guide. They shaped the content and led the outreach that informed it. Information for this guide included performing a scan of youth transportation organizations across the U.S. and conducting interviews with 14 high school and young adult road safety organizations. The goal was to better understand the impact youth are having in their communities; to highlight the ways that communities are benefitting from their efforts; to identify types of support or training these groups need to reach their potential; and identify current policy change opportunities. The team also examined the challenges that youth groups face in sustaining a changing membership.

In order to address and discuss topics related to youth, youth must not only be consulted, but also included. Throughout this project, the Vision Zero for Youth advocacy team worked to ensure that actions reflected such equitable approaches to road safety.  Hopefully, this perspective provides additional value to readers, particularly to those who may not have a direct relationship or communication with youth advocates.


“Who knows about young people, if not young people?”

– Mialy, Youth Researcher from Madagascar in an interview with wearerestless.org


Centering the most affected population

Understanding the importance of youth perspective and engagement

Young people play an important role in shaping the future transportation system for two key reasons.

First, social problems disproportionately impact young people. They are the age group most affected by road trauma, with road traffic crashes being a leading cause of death among those aged 5–29 years. Furthermore, young people are disproportionately impacted by interlinking health and environmental issues, as noted in a report by UNICEF. With a culture of vehicle ownership and mass highway expansion, young people are at greater risk of air pollution and congestion. Yet, this population has continually been isolated as victims of road traffic crashes, instead of being involved in key policies and actions as stakeholders and partners in ending this deadly epidemic. Particularly, young people in the U.S. are saturated with hundreds of youth educational peer to peer programs in teen driver behavior that isolates their lived experiences within the overall transportation system to just driving and typically ignores youth experience with public transit, walking, and biking. With peer to peer programs as the main strategy, the implication is that crashes are the fault of the behavior of young people, while staying silent on the role of street design and other major factors that contribute to crashes. As stated in the Youth for Road Safety (YOURS), Policymakers Toolkit:

“Road traffic injuries and crashes are often viewed as accidents, moments of bad luck or bad judgement, rather than the avoidable tragedies that they are. For young people, this victim-blaming mindset is incredibly damaging. This leads to a ‘quick fix’ approach to improving road safety that targets young people as a problem rather than working with youth as active collaborators who can participate meaningfully in developing and implementing effective road safety interventions”

Second, youth are the generation that will inherit the outcomes of today’s decisions about the safety of the evolving transportation system. Youth are passionately concerned about the state of the world and about the future, and are connected to social institutions providing mobilization and organizing power. As such, they should be asked about their needs to help shape the system and generate ideas on how to better protect some of the most vulnerable among us.

Decision-making and implementing bodies, including governments, community organizations, and non-government organizations, benefit from having youth as key partners in many ways. Youth have valuable insight and connections to social movements. Youth provide lived experiences to help transportation professionals determine appropriate community improvements. Young people help city leaders gain public support for policy changes and infrastructure improvements. Youth are, and will continue to be, invested in their cities and their efforts help create a safer place for all.

Young people benefit as well. Young people can be a part of transforming and sustaining their own communities. Youth gain community organizing, professional, and leadership development skills while making a difference in their communities, adding valuable projects to their resumes. The efforts of young people save lives and prevent injuries. A safe place for our most vulnerable community members means a safe place for all.

In interviews, young leaders in road safety expressed a high level of interest in learning and engaging in road safety career development. There seemed to be a lack of opportunities for young people to be seen as future professionals in the field and opportunities for them to engage in more than their school-based projects.

An equitable approach to road safety for children and youth requires cultivating, supporting, and centering youth in voicing their experience of the impact of traffic injuries and how they want to see the system change to support their safe, healthy access to streets.

National Youth Bike Council–a growing national voice for youth

The National Youth Bike Council (NYBC) is a great example of the power of youth leadership. NYBC has impressive accomplishments and ambitious goals which include forming a connected network of youth biking advocates across the U.S. and engaging the bicycle industry. NYBC has created a national presence including partnering with the Youth Bike Summit and speaking at national conferences.

Hear Joshua Funches, the founder of NYBC (front row, seated right), talk about what motivated him and see a video “We didn’t know it would be like this” about NYBC’s recent work.




Meaningful youth engagement

Going beyond a traditional view of youth involvement

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. For example, in some places, municipal leaders, transportation planners, and engineers are involving high school students in walk audits, observations and data collection in their own communities.

Given the outsized impact on this age group, youth must be involved in key work towards ending serious injuries and deaths on our roadways, and can do so by starting advocacy efforts especially where they walk and bike most.

One youth advocate expressed their frustrations with their experiences with adults:

“Our dedication, credibility, skills, abilities are scrutinized, and our lived experiences overlooked and disregarded. We often face perspectives such as ‘youth don’t know what they’re talking about’ or ‘youth don’t have enough experience for me to listen to them’ or ‘youth are too immature.’ Because of this, we have realized that the challenges facing youth tend to be buried in order to paint a picture of continuous success, as a way to ‘prove them wrong’.”

Many models exist for how young people are engaged. This guide uses an adaptation of Roger Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation from creativeyouthdevelopment.org as a framework to understanding meaningful youth participation within the context of engaging young people in road safety advocacy, policy and education.

There are a multitude of reasons why youth should be involved in changes to our streets, but the ‘how’ is key. Most importantly, there must be a shift from tokenism to youth power. The Ladder of Youth Participation visualizes this shift; the higher one moves up the ladder, the level of meaningful youth participation improves.

Pause for reflection


  • Do you or your organization already include young people’s opinions and ideas?
  • If not, why? What barriers have prevented you from doing so?
  • If so, how would you describe their involvement?
  • Are they included starting at the initial discussions, or only later once a plan has been set and public support is needed?
  • Looking at the Ladder of Participation, are there ways to build upon the current involvement approach?


  • As you look at the Ladder of Participation, what rung or rungs describe how you’ve been included by groups in the past?
  • What can you do to advocate for yourself and your lived experiences?
  • Who can help you move up the ladder? Talk to them.

Youth voices in shaping policies and infrastructure improvements

Infrastructure improvements such as traffic calming and policy changes such as lowering speed limits are proven strategies to improve safety that youth can influence.

We discuss meaningful youth engagement and its link with policy change in the following video. There are a multitude of engagement strategies for youth involvement in policy change, but all meaningful engagement in policy change requires three things:

  1. Consciously engaging in power-shifting from tokenism to youth power.
  2. Uplifting youth-initiated and shared decisions with adults.
  3. Providing support, whether through funding, networking, or outside opportunities.

Hear our youth advocacy team describe meaningful youth engagement as part of the GDCI’s Designing Streets for Kids Training.



Meaningful youth participation is a two-way street: there needs to be effort from both adults and youth. These infrastructure and policy changes require buy-in from key decision-makers and the community. Not only do decision-makers need to include youth to know which policy changes are most wanted and needed, but youth can also plan an important role in mobilizing support from leaders and the public.

In interviews, young leaders expressed 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 explained that they are mostly seen as peer educators, rather than young people who can actively engage in policy change. Some of the youth groups focused on peer education expressed interest in using their power to effect long-term policy change. In contrast, some cities are finding meaningful ways to incorporate youth voices.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Youth Transportation Advisory Board – an ambitious partnership between city and youth

SFMTA Youth Transportation Advisory Board Meeting in 2022
Source: SFMTA

SFMTA’s Youth Transportation Advisory Board began with the intent of incorporating youth into city government. It is a unique relationship between young people in the San Francisco Bay Area and SFMTA Board of Directors, Director of Transportation and staff. The youth board provides opportunities for youth to engage in monthly consultative meetings to share their lived experiences to influence existing services, practices and budgets of the SFMTA. Furthermore, youth can serve on subcommittees for project-specific work and are paid stipends for their participation.

A powerful aspect of this youth and city leader engagement is that youth lead the advisory board, contribute to the definition of their work, and feel their ideas, recommendations and opinions are valued and seriously considered. Key learnings from the 2021-2022 Youth Advisory Board included how youth felt that existing transportation safety and security measures were inadequate for keeping San Francisco youth safe, that youth felt discriminated against, and that network change announcements were published on unfamiliar mediums resulting in many youth struggling to navigate the system.

Elevating the lived experiences of young people explicitly through consultations, shared decision-making, and youth-led decision-making provides the opportunity for city leaders to become better informed of the consequences of local road safety policies and practices.

Vision Zero Youth Council – advocacy for speed laws that reduced crashes

The Vision Zero Youth Council, a student-led 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. At the time, traffic crashes were the leading cause of injury-related death for children under fourteen years of age. 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.

In a review of the first two years of data, NYC DOT found an almost 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 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 which are often more dangerous than the streets on which schools are located. The Vision Zero Youth Council took part in lobbying days at the New York State Senate in Albany, organized rallies, and spearheaded a petition that received over 600 signatures from high school students across the city in just three days. The NYC DOT credited the Vision Zero Youth Council for providing the youth voice so valuable in creating public support for this policy change.

Where to go from here: Recommendations for meaningful youth engagement

Now that we have established the importance of meaningful youth engagement and presented examples of youth groups involved in policy change, this section presents guidelines for taking steps to ensure that youth engagement truly becomes “meaningful.”

The following recommendations address challenges and barriers to youth activism success. Each of these recommendations is described as a “two-way street,” which is defined as a situation or relationship requiring give-and-take, with each party contributing and benefiting from each other. While many recommendations might be tailored to just youth or just adults, our recommendations are practices that should go both ways and be practiced by all and should be ongoing.

Two-way street: Recommendations for both adults and youth

Set the stage for success

Consider using the 80/20 rule of active listening.
Adults, spend 80% of the time listening and only 20% of the time talking. For example, host a town hall with students at a local school, or visit their classes or afterschool program. During this time, encourage youth to bring up concerns, both big and small, and write them all down. As you listen, ask questions to make sure you get a complete picture of the issue. Those clarification questions are a big part of the 20%: remember, you are there to learn from and about youth.

Expect good intentions. Start with a positive outlook and an understanding that the other people involved are there to help and support their communities. This might look different for different communities, but everyone only wants the best for their people.

Create a welcoming environment. Create a safe space where everyone feels welcome and comfortable bringing their identities, lived experiences, ideas and perspectives. Be willing to listen or shift your mindset. If youth in your community disagree with an idea or solution you had about a youth-facing issue, do not tell them that they are wrong or that they do not understand. Asking questions is more than okay, especially for clarification. Be patient; understanding each other takes time, clarification, and some stumbling around.

Respect each other’s time. Everyone’s time is important and needs to be valued. If you make a commitment, keep it or communicate with the other party if you have to bow out.

Adults, keep in mind that youth have many commitments fighting for their time and attention, from school, job, family, extracurriculars, college applications, and a constant search for resume-building opportunities.

Example of shared solutions:
There is a dangerous intersection being discussed by a community member and a traffic engineer. The community member insists that a stop sign will solve the issue. The engineer has to say no because that solution does not work in that situation, but another solution does. The community member knew what the problem was, and the engineer knew what the right solution was. Both had a vital piece of information for getting to the solution.

Youth, if an adult asks you to present at an event, but you ghost them and are a no-show, that adult may be hesitant to ask another youth in the future. Don’t ruin these cross-generational opportunities for your peers.

Respect each other’s knowledge. Be open to new ideas, learning something new, and even being wrong. Often each person has a piece of knowledge or perspective that contributes to the solution.

Youth, you have the lived experience and the direct connections to understand how youth in your community feel and what they would like to see changed, this is your superpower – use it.

Be honest and transparent. No one else knows how you are feeling, the challenges you are facing, or your workload. Others can work with you to manage these things, but only if they know they are happening. Overwhelmed by a deadline at work or school? Be honest, and let the other party know.

Getting to work

Build relationships and establish common interests. Adults, find out what inspires and motivates youth in your community, and what frustrates them. Learn about what attracts them to your issue, what their vision for the future is, and how they envision accomplishing it.

Youth, reach out to city leaders on building a youth-centered project. With your lived experience, identify a community road safety policy issue or project. Oftentimes, city leaders are looking for projects that engage youth in their communities, and they could be willing to help you make it a reality. Mobilize your peers. Road safety is interconnected with many other issues, so does addressing road safety through another angle – such as transit access, food justice, climate change, substance use disorders or housing insecurity – bring more interest?

Think beyond tokenism and traditional roles. Adults and youth need to take involvement seriously; view young people as “decision-makers” rather than just beneficiaries or partners.
Adults, youth should be seen as key stakeholders rather than just peer educators or photo ops. Include them in your decision-making processes like you would any other stakeholder. Co-create agendas, project schedules and objectives.

If there is a specific youth or youth-led group that you would like to work with, find out how you can support them – not just how they could support you. What is their mission? What is your capacity to support them? Are there opportunities for co-creation or collaboration?

Listen, learn, and use information youth provide.

Establish action plans with everyone’s goals in mind. Plan co-creation opportunities such as co-developing community assessment plans and project schedules. Provide youth with the tools, funding, and resources to become activated in advocacy, policy, and education. Equip youth with the proper resources and information to make accurate decisions.

Bring youth participants in to co-create and receive feedback on program objectives, timelines, and opportunities that may be of interest to youth. This bolsters buy-in and engagement before the program even starts. Provide youth with guidance on problems and potential solutions.

When big is needed, go big. Policy change is possible. Some youth groups 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.

Make it sustainable— Meaningful youth engagement is not a one-time thing

Be a spokesperson for, and uplift, youth voices. Help youth network and provide them with external opportunities when possible, such as media exposure, speaking opportunities, and/or professional development opportunities.

Example: Has a reporter reached out to you for an op-ed piece in the local paper? Has a conference planning group asked you to do a webinar or participate in a panel discussion? And does the subject involve youth, or is it a subject you have been actively working on with youth? Consider suggesting that the opportunity be passed on to a youth advocate! (Bonus points if you already have someone specific in mind.)

Work for a long-term partnership. Meaningful youth engagement requires thoughtful, constant, and continuous implementation through an intentional process. Adults, provide methods for new youth to know the history of engagement. Youth, keep information about the partnering organization and the specific project and pass it on to others so that other young people can carry on your work after you move on.

Consider compensation and resources. Adults, as you establish your relationships with youth leaders, have something to offer them in return for their time and lived experiences. This could be financial support, such as stipends, or resources, tools, knowledge, and/or sharing power through shared decision-making.

Pause for reflection


  • What steps can you take today to initiate meaningful youth engagement?
  • Have you researched and identified youth activists/youth-led groups in your community? If so, what are youth in your community passionate about?

Real world example

Atlanta Students Advocating for Pedestrians (ASAP) – an excellent example of many of these recommendations in action

The Atlanta Students Advocating for Pedestrians (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 who was killed crossing 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 Crosswalk) 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) meet 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.

Hear ASAP members describe their work at the school and in the community.




Organizational Assessment Checklist by Youth on Board

Pathways to Policy Change by ChangeLab Solutions

Policymakers’ Toolkit by Youth for Road Safety (YOURS)

A Tool for Youth Engagement and Empowerment by Division X Technical Assistance