Schoolchildren face a maze of uncertainty on their way to class every day in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. With road networks constantly expanding in one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities, the 90 percent of kids who walk to school need to navigate across streets without pedestrian crossings—and sometimes without sidewalks.
Packs of motorcycles zip in front of and around cars, accounting for nearly half of road injuries. The average journey of one kilometer from home to classroom can be dangerous, and too often, deadly. African children are twice as likely to die in a traffic collision then children in other parts of the world.
The clear challenge, and lack of resources to address it, has inspired one nonprofit to create a solution with the potential to scale up and solve road safety issues worldwide. In 2012, a Ghana-based non-governmental organization called Amend created a data-driven approach to quickly fixing dangerous streets called SARSAI (School Area Road Safety Assessments and Improvements).
After years of iterating the program, SARSAI has impacted more than 30 school and 64,000 students in Tanzania alone, and spread to nine additional countries. It also has won the first annual Ross Prize for Cities, a $250,000 global award given by the World Resources Institute (WRI).
For Ayikai Poswayo, a former traffic engineer and program director at Amend, SARSAI has proven how a simple, straightforward, and low-cost approach can begin to tackle a public health crisis and deliver universally recognized results.
“Seeing children cross the streets more relaxed, and happy to go to school, is enough to make us feel like we’re doing something important,” says Poswayo.
Road safety is a global concern
Every year, 1.35 million people around the globe die from road crashes (including about 40,000 people on U.S. streets, which aren’t getting safer). In low- and middle-income countries, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists account for 80 percent of deaths. A lack of safe pedestrian infrastructure remains a significant cause of increased injury and death globally, especially in areas with less funding.
“These roads have become, in many ways, death traps,” says Poswayo. “In many places, pedestrians make up the greatest proportion of road users, despite the streets being designed for cars.”
What makes SARSAI’s approach so relevant, and potentially revolutionary, is that it fuses detailed data analysis and site observations with rapid-response infrastructure improvements. It’s tactical urbanism with a tight focus.
From start to finish—targeting a school with high crash rates, observing students and road conditions, then interfacing with local councils to install new road safety features—the process takes roughly 3 to 6 months with the SARSAI program. Not every single issue is addressed, or potential infrastructure improvement made. But the targeted program gets results. A 2015 study of SARSAI’s effectiveness conducted by the Centers for Disease Control found that participating schools saw a 26 percent reduction in road traffic injuries.
“Their use of a data-driven approach, very early on in the project cycle, helped create a rigorous program what they could easily scale up,” says Jessica Seddon, director of integrated urban strategy at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “They kept a very specific focus, in children and the commutes they take every day.”
We need better roads, not just better awareness
Amend was created to solve a problem that that no other groups in Africa seemed to be addressing. It was launched in 2005 by Jeffrey White, a former surgeon in Ghana, who remembered seeing scores of people come to the hospital with road injuries, a crisis that appeared to be overlooked by local officials.
Initially, Amend focused on advocacy and education, still cornerstones of its work. But, with the goal of finding the most impactful way to reduce traffic injuries among children, it was clear that lack of caution wasn’t the main issue.
“The fact of the matter is, the education piece is great, but you can’t place the responsibility of road safety on a child,” says Poswayo. “That needs to be carried out by governments and our communities.”
Now the SARSAI approach starts with choosing the schools with the biggest traffic safety risk, where the group can make the most difference. Once chosen, each school and school area goes under the microscope, with Amend staff interviewing teachers and students, conducting surveys, and walking along the same paths taken by students.
Amend then creates a plan of action, including bollards, separated lanes for pedestrians, and other street improvements, and takes it to a local neighborhood council to consult and check with engineers. After making any necessary tweaks, representatives connect with approved contractors and start making changes. They don’t target every block, just the most impactful streets and intersections. The assessment plus implementation costs roughly $25,000 per school.
“We actually do the bare minimum,” says Poswayo. “We’d like to make every part of every student’s route that safe, but we have the money to focus on the most important areas. But every time we do it, we find a better way to do it next time.”
Street safety that can scale up
Going through official channels and conducting extensive research can feel like a slow process, says Poswayo. But the infrastructure changes, in addition to student education and awareness campaigns, make a difference. It’s infrastructure that’s focused on people, something she felt like she lost touch with working for a more traditional traffic engineering firm.
Now, the organization works in nine countries, with additional workshops in Jamaica and Morocco, and has started a new initiative with the Tanzanian government to design urban roads following SARSAI assessments. With the money and awareness that come with the Ross Prize, Amend can scale even larger. This is an idea that could work for entire neighborhoods, Posway says, and create a better path for pedestrians.
“A tiny road-safety NGO can’t provide safe journeys for all the students in sub-Saharan Africa,” she sats. “But what we can do, by raising the profile of the issue, is make sure the people who are supposed to be doing this job are starting to do it.”