7 ways to transform traffic safety around your school for under $500

Kids parking bicycles at racks in front of a school.
If you’re not looking forward to school traffic stress, consider some of these ideas.

(Note: The City of Portland issued a statement today telling Portlanders that, “Kids are everywhere. Drive like it.” In that spirit, we’d like to share a list of ideas on how you can work with your school to improve street safety. This post was written by Portland Public School teacher and 2019 Oregon Walks Weston Award Winner Sam Balto.)

With schools across Portland and around the country opening up for in-person instruction, now is a great time for parents, staff and everyone in the school community to jumpstart active transportation plans.

Below are seven ideas that are Covid-safe and community-focused. As a teacher myself who has worked on several projects like these, I know they can have a positive impact on students’ physical, social and emotional wellness. By using tactical urbanism and low-cost supplies, we can create meaningful change to build schools back better.

Paint a School Mural

Murals at Cesár Chavez School in north Portland.
(Photos: Sam Balto)

While doing a mural on Portland streets can require more approval from PBOT, creating a mural in a school parking lot is much easier to implement. A principal’s approval should do the trick. If your school community needs support with mural painting reach out to The City Repair Project. They helped implement two murals at Cesár Chavez School and were absolutely incredible to work with.

Here’s a video of one of the murals we did in our parking lot.


Start a Walking School Bus or Bike Train

For more on these ideas check out my post on Streetsblog Mass from fall 2020.

Create a Plaza


When you cordon off an area where driving is prohibited, you create safer, stress-free space for students and the school community.

Create an Outdoor Classroom

Create a Traffic Garden

Want to give your school playground or parking lot a jumpstart for the summer to create more space for children to play, learn and get physical activity? Consider painting a traffic garden. For $50 you can transform unused asphalt into a fun and engaging place for children and adults.

Here’s a video of one of the gardens we planted at Roseway Heights Middle School:

Boulder Valley School District went Traffic Garden crazy this summer:


Create a Thrive Zone

Tired of seeing cars idling next to your children while waiting to enter the school building. Consider creating a “Thrive Zone” in the parking lot to create a healthier, safe and calmer entry to the school building. Schools have more control over their parking lots than the streets around the school, so with strong outreach and support you should be good to go.

The term “Thrive Zone” was shared with me by The Street Trust Executive Director Sarah Iannarone (who learned about it through urban planning firm Gehl). While visiting Copenhagen she learned that the city was taking a child-focused approach to reduce air pollution around schools and parks.

Implement School Streets


According to the School Streets Initiative in the United Kingdom a “School Street is a road outside a school with a temporary restriction on motorised traffic at school drop-off and pick-up times. The restriction applies to school traffic and through traffic. The result is a safer, healthier and pleasant environment for everyone.

School Street schemes offer a proactive solution for school communities to tackle air pollution, poor health and road danger reduction. A School Street scheme will encourage a healthier lifestyle and active travel to school for families and lead to a better environment for everyone.”

A recent report from the 350 school streets across London found a 23% reduction in pollution, 18% of parents drove less and 81% of respondents supported the changes.

At this moment I have not heard of one school street that has started since the pandemic in the United States. But it does look like our friends in Vancouver, BC have a pilot program at three schools. Hopefully they become a huge success and we see more of them — and all these ideas! — in Portland soon.

Sam Balto.
(Photo: BikePortland)

— Sam Balto, sambalto@gmail.com and @CoachBalto on Twitter
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Sam Balto (Contributor)

Sam Balto (Contributor)

Sam Balto is a northeast Portland resident who teaches physical education at a local public school. In 2019 he was honored with a Weston Award from Oregon Walks for his school-based traffic safety advocacy. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachBalto.

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Betsy Reese
2 years ago


Ken S
Ken S
2 years ago

This is great!

Scott F Kocher
2 years ago

Yes! And email safe[at]portlandoregon.gov and ask them to post the school zone at your school (and every kid’s school) at 15 MPH which is the statutory speed minus 5 mph.

2 years ago

Love this, Sam! Thank you for sharing all these great ideas!