2015 Silver and Bronze Anvils Award Winner Case Study: UDOT’s Walking School Bus App Campaign: Increasing Safe Walking and Biking to School One Download at a Time



Nationwide, the number of students walking to school has significantly decreased, resulting in an increased number of cars around schools. To address this safety concern, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) created the Student Neighborhood Access Program (SNAP)™, a comprehensive effort to encourage safe walking and biking to school. 

SNAP initially developed software and tools to assist in developing and distributing an annual safe walking map, mandated by Utah law. The program’s second phase included programs targeting students, such as curriculum materials, a musical assembly and an annual safe walking and biking to school competition.

While the various efforts experienced strong participation (80% of Utah schools use SNAP Software as of 2015), the team faced two challenges. First, through surveys and in-depth individual interviews, it was determined parents have the greatest influence on whether or not their children walk to school, yet they weren’t being directly targeted. Second, measuring the effectiveness of the campaign by determining numbers of students walking or biking to school was problematic.

In the development of a new parent program, it was determined the No. 1 reason parents do not allow their children to walk and bike to school is fear of stranger abduction, despite the fact that only 115 such kidnappings occur annually in the U.S. They cited having a parent accompany their child or having kids walk together in groups as key.

Walking School Bus appThe team was familiar with a program called a Walking School Bus (WSB), which involves a group of children accompanied by an adult walking or biking to school (‘a carpool without the car’), and honed in on the concept. In analyzing WSB efforts around the U.S., the team learned that while the concept was sound, its application was difficult, and as a result, there were no successful large-scale programs.

 The biggest challenges surrounded complications in bringing together neighbors to organize and execute a WSB and then in communicating schedule changes (e.g., being late or sick). The team initially created a WSB model from best practices and worked with a pilot group of parents to help test it, resulting in a more streamlined program. Despite the effort, the initial launch of UDOT’s WSB program in 2013 was largely unsuccessful, garnering approximately 20 downloads of a “how to” guide and only a handful of walking groups.

From the research and experience with the static WSB, the primary objective of the effort was to engage parents by creating a method/tool to make a WSB program simpler, one that would provide greater peace of mind and could also provide a form of measurement.

The team determined that technology was the key to overcoming the limitation and challenges of the static WSB program and worked with a group of developers, parents and principals to create the first dedicated WSB smartphone app (a tactic contributing to the Bronze Anvil win). Features included allowing parents to search by elementary school for existing walking groups, to create new walking groups and invite neighbors to join, to plan walks to and from school, and to assign parent leaders to walk with students.

The primary target audience was parents of K-6 children, and key strategies included introducing the app through earned and paid media; directing outreach to school principals; incorporating the app into existing programs; and outreach to state and local PTA leaders.

In spring 2014, groups at two schools with very different demographics helped test and refine the beta version of the WSB app. During the beta testing process, the team also worked to capture footage of parents and kids using the app to walk and bike to school. This was imperative to provide a visual component of walking and biking since the app would officially launch during the summer when school wasn’t in session. A two-minute video was produced and used to announce and demonstrate the WSB app at the state PTA conference in early summer.

Additionally, the team personally contacted and distributed materials about the WSB app to principals at key schools throughout July and August. Two weeks before the start of school, a press event was staged in the front yard of one of the parents who had tested the WSB app. With the cameras rolling, she and her neighbors gathered to download the app and create the state’s first digital WSB group. The press event featured parents encouraging other parents to forgo creating a carpool and to instead download and use the app to help their children safely walk and bike to school.

A PSA was created and aired as part of a moderate paid campaign that complemented the earned media, primarily on morning news programs. Geo-targeted ads were placed on Pandora and mobile sites (for searches of elementary schools and back-to-school stories), PSAs ran in targeted movie theaters, and parents were also reached through social media.

Finally, the WSB app was cross-promoted in media and outreach efforts for SNAP’s annual Walk More In Four competition in September. 

The program exceeded all expectations:

  • The app achieved more than 1,100 downloads exceeding the objective by 450%
  • More than 240 active walking groups were created, exceeding the objective by 588%
  • More than 35 TV, print and radio stories and segments, including a front page Salt Lake Tribune feature, were secured
  • 4) The effort had a reach of more than 2 million impressions, exceeding the objective by 300%

During its first 120 days, the WSB app resulted in Utah students and their parents walking and biking more than 20,000 miles to and from school. More than 25,000 car trips were reduced, 8.5 million CO2 emissions were saved, and app users burned more than 2 million calories. Additionally, three states and two countries, New Jersey, California, Nevada and Alberta, Canada and Naples, Italy, contacted UDOT expressing their interest in adapting and implementing the WSB app.

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