Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Fixing Florida's Hazardous Walking Conditions Law

The author is the former Director of Transportation for the Escambia County (Florida) School District.  The Escambia County School District Transportation Department manages one of the largest student transportation operations in the United States, transporting some 24,000 students twice a day every school day.  The author is also the co-founder of the Escambia Pathways Coalition, a public-private body organized to identify and correct hazardous walking conditions in Escambia County.


One does not need not to look far to discover that the current hazardous walking conditions parameters described in the Florida education code (Section 1006.23) are not realistic or practical by any measure.  The statute language itself is a challenge to follow on the first few readings.  That makes a routine critical analysis of its implications very difficult.  It’s almost as though the statute was written to satisfy a need for a criteria - almost any criteria - but not necessarily establish a sensible standard by which real hazards to students would be identified and remedied.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to correct the statute in the state legislature.  However, improving the language in a meaningful way has proven difficult for two key reasons.

First, some school districts have opposed improvements to the hazardous walking conditions statute because a requirement to transport students around conditions that are more realistically defined than they currently are might also require districts to transport more students, purchase more school buses, and hire more school bus operators, all other factors remaining equal, possibly at a greater cost to districts.

Second, the legislature has been very reluctant to approve legislation that isn’t revenue neutral.  Past proposals that have improved the definition of “hazardous walking conditions” would have required the approval of additional revenue from the legislature, had they been approved.  That continues to be an obstacle to change unless there is a balancing of costs embedded within the proposal.

I have a proposal that improves the definition of hazardous walking conditions in a way that keeps students who walk to school safe from traffic while also overcoming those two limitations.  (To view and download the proposed statute, click HERE.)


The logic behind my proposal begins with what the statutes describe as a "reasonable walking distance" to and from school for school children.

By replacing the reference in statutes to 2 miles as a “reasonable walking distance” with the term “transportation service boundary,” we eliminate the sense that the State of Florida expects students to walk two miles to school.  Instead, we want to establish two miles from school as the distance at which state-funded student transportation service begins.  It also eliminates the need for the state to make a provision for elementary school students who seemingly would walk two miles to school if not for hazards between home and school that prevent them from doing so safely.

Students do not walk two miles to school and would not do it even if the hazards between home and school were eliminated.  They might walk one mile.  Therefore, the distance from school where hazards should be considered should be reduced from two miles to one mile, and that is the distance that I propose be established as the “reasonable walking distance.”

With the hazard range decreased from two miles to one mile, it also makes sense to ensure the hazardous walking conditions criteria itself is logical and keeps students safe.  Certainly, the true test of the practicality of the language is to consider whether conditions that don't qualify as “hazardous” under the statute are "safe."  The current language fails that test dramatically.

So, taking the same common sense approach to the hazardous walking conditions criteria, it’s important to recognize two important realities: 
  1. That students of all ages are endangered by hazardous walking conditions, and
  2. That the hazardous walking conditions criteria ought to be credible and it should consider the elements of safe infrastructure design.
Before touching on the highlights of our proposal, though, let’s look at how we can address the issue of school districts that have concerns regarding the possible need to add school bus routes, purchase additional school buses, and hire more school bus operators under improved hazardous walking conditions criteria.  The proposal includes a provision in Section 1006.21 that enables school districts to seek relief from the Department of Education if financial or logistical constraints or limitations prevent them from satisfying the requirements contained in the hazardous walking conditions statute.

Here are the highlights of my proposal:
  • The hazardous walking conditions criteria and associated state funding should apply to the transportation of students of all ages.
  • A safe and suitable walkway should not be 4 feet wide, it should be 5 feet wide as is required in the construction of sidewalks per the Florida DOT Green Book.
  • The statute should be clear that no part of a drainage ditch or any part of any other stormwater runoff facility or system, including side slopes, is a suitable walkway for students.
  • Railroad crossings, bridges, and overpasses that lack paved walkways are not suitable walkways for students.
  • Students should not be required to cross a roadway between intersections or outside of marked crosswalks in order to acquire a safe walkway parallel to the road.
  • The walking route that is utilized in calculating eligibility for transportation should be used in the application of the hazardous walking conditions criteria.
  • Qualifying traffic volume should reflect the fact that morning traffic near schools generally flows toward school in the morning and away from school in the afternoon.  Furthermore, the traffic volume measurement should be focused and specific to the period during which students would walk to or from school because 15 minutes on either side of that period would be irrelevant to the matter and would distort the true sense of the traffic volumes that students encounter.  The proposal also allows for traffic to be counted manually if existing traffic engineering records are not specific enough.
  • Qualifying traffic volume should be at a threshold that genuinely reflects a hazard to students.  
  • Whether a crossing site is controlled or uncontrolled, roads consisting of more than two lanes of traffic and have a posted speed limit of 35 mph or greater should be considered hazardous for students.
  • Any crossing site where it is likely that student pedestrians would encounter traffic turning from left turn lanes, lanes where a right turn on red is authorized, and free-flow right turn lanes should be considered hazardous for students.  The Florida Greenbook acknowledges the importance designing roadways, sidewalks, and crosswalks in a manner that eliminates conflict between motorists and pedestrians, and limiting the use of vehicle traffic flow facilities such as those included in the proposal.
Then, we need to make the process of identifying hazardous walkways less cumbersome and less difficult for school districts.  For instance, the statute requires a number of steps in the process, some of which are simply not necessary when using an objective criteria.  For instance, we should eliminate the requirement to include a law enforcement representative in the process of identifying and certifying a hazardous segment.

We also need to address the fact that the statute currently requires that hazardous segments be removed from the state funding list once the expected completion date passes, whether the work is complete or not.  School districts should not be left without a state funding contribution when other governmental entities fail to complete work as planned.  Since school districts don’t control public works construction schedules, the statute should allow the transportation of students around hazardous conditions to be claimed for a state funding contribution for as long as the hazardous condition exists and the district transports students around it.  Additionally, some hazards can’t and won’t be eliminated without a massive roadway overhaul.

Finally, my proposal requires districts to review and update declared hazardous segments periodically in accordance with Florida Department of Education procedures.  The requirement is intended no only to ensure that districts track the progress of hazard remediation, it also requires that FDOE articulate procedures for them to do so.  This would dampen the temptation by agencies to infer procedures informally from the statutes where none exist.

Revenue and Other Impact

So, the big question is whether the impact of the proposal on state revenue is neutral.  With the hazardous walking conditions eligibility zone reduced from 2 miles to 1 mile on one side of the ledger and the creation of a credible criteria and the addition of middle and high school students to the eligibility pool on the other side of the ledger, it appears to be neutral.

I anticipate that the cost associated with expanding the ages of students covered by Section 1006.23 and the improvements in the definition of the conditions that constitute hazards to student pedestrians is more than balanced by the reduction of the distance from school that hazardous walking conditions would be considered for student transportation.  Reducing the hazardous radius by half reduces the number of students affected by more than half.

I also anticipate that by improving the definition of the conditions that constitute hazards to student pedestrians, governmental entities that have jurisdiction over roadways and walkway segments will also apply a more practical and realistic standard when identifying and prioritizing work projects.  Although the Section 1006.23 criteria was never intended to create a “level of service” standard for governmental entities that are responsible for improving walking infrastructure, we have seen plenty of evidence where those entities have used the criteria to determine whether walking conditions should be improved.  Thus, one unintended consequence of the vastly understated hazardous walking conditions criteria is underdeveloped infrastructure planning based on that criteria.

I also anticipate that the combination of these proposals would put school districts on firmer ground when designing local student transportation parameters.  For instance, with the reorientation of “reasonable walking distance” parameters, school districts can point first to the distance from school where transportation service begins rather than whether hazardous conditions that exist 1-2 miles from school would warrant transportation service.  In providing a realistic and practical definition of “hazardous walking conditions,” school districts could actually rely on statute for guidance in that regard rather than create local criteria that can be fluid and contentious.

Finally, the option for school district superintendents and school boards to seek relief from the requirement to transport students around hazardous conditions reduces the likelihood that they will oppose an improvement to the statute on the basis of the availability of resources in order to comply.  That notwithstanding, I anticipate that the reduction of the distance from school relative to the hazardous walking conditions parameters from 2 miles to 1 mile will actually reduce school districts’ compulsory transportation footprint, not increase it.  Currently, more than half of Florida’s school districts claim no State funding for transporting students around hazardous walking conditions.

It has been difficult to find a solution that leaves the citizens of Florida with an improvement to the hazardous walking conditions criteria that is also generally revenue-neutral and doesn’t place an onerous burden on school districts that are unable to adapt to the improvements.  I believe this proposal has found a way to get it done.

  • To view and download the proposed statute, click HERE.
  • To view and download a video presentation that contains more details, illustrations, and background information, click HERE.