Safe Routes to School: Q&A with Deb Hubsmith

Feb 14, 2012, 3:33 PM, Posted by

Sixteen years ago, Deb Hubsmith was on her daily drive after work and another vehicle violently smashed into the passenger side of her car. Her car was totaled. As the crash took place, Hubsmith vowed to herself that if she survived, she'd give up owning a car for good. Hubsmith went on to found and direct the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and spearhead a national movement to create healthier, more walkable communities where children can walk or bike to school every day.

NewPublicHealth caught up with Deb Hubsmith to talk about why safe routes to school are critical for the nation’s health.

NewPublicHealth: Why are safe routes to school important for the nation's health and quality of life?

Deb Hubsmith: The trip to school is a trip every child in America makes. Safe Routes to School is the only federal funding that is dedicated to infrastructure and programs that help kids be able to walk and bike to school in their daily life. By building sidewalks and pathways and safer street crossings, and focusing on safe routes to school, we can change the built environment and also change the culture. This creates opportunities for safe and healthy physical activity for children across the country.

NPH: How did you come to found the Safe Routes to School National Partnership?

Deb Hubsmith: I’ve always cared a lot about the environment and public health. After I got into a car accident 16 years ago, I decided to try living life without a car. It was very difficult to do this. So, I became an advocate for transportation choices. I started off by working with parents and teachers and advocates at the local school in my community. We worked on ways to get kids to school safely by walking and biking, and by carpooling and busing. I became interested in how this could be done on a larger scale, so I started working within the county. When I heard that Congressman Oberstar was looking for ways to improve safe routes to school and walking and biking in America, I had the great fortune of meeting him and having the opportunity to run a national pilot program for safe routes to school in Marin County, Calif. In that program, in one year we increased the number of kids walking and biking to school by 57 percent. This made national news.

The childhood obesity epidemic was rising at that time, and Mr. Oberstar wanted to do something to help all of America, so I worked with his staff on crafting federal legislation, and the Safe Routes to School program was included in the transportation bill in 2005. I launched the Safe Routes to School National Partnership at the same time because I knew we needed a grassroots organization to truly build a movement. This movement needed to be diverse, with partners from health, education, equity, environmental and transportation organizations. Now, our national partnership includes about 600 organizations.

NPH: You've said the concept of safe routes to school has reached the point where it's become a true movement. How did this shift come about?


Deb Hubsmith: With the enactment of the Safe Routes to School Act in the federal transportation legislation, every state department of transportation received at least $1 million a year for improvements to the built environment and for programs. That’s a big carrot. Money always helps to get communities and schools interested in launching new initiatives.

But what really tipped the balance was advocacy around reversing childhood obesity. This really struck a chord across America. One of the things we’ve done in America in the past 50 years is we’ve engineered our way out of possibilities for safe and healthy physical activity. Safe Routes to School engineers those possibilities for physical activity back into our communities. The movement has really been around a waking up of America that places to walk and bike and safe routes to school are all quality of life issues.

Major polls are showing people want to live in places where it’s safe to walk and bike. The concept of safe routes to school in particular is something people can relate to because everyone believes that a child should be able to have a safe environment.

NPH: When children can walk or bike to school, what else does that mean for the community? Does that translate into broader benefits as well?

Deb Hubsmith: In most communities if a child can walk to school, it means you have a community where it’s safe for kids to be outside. That means they can be outside for physical activity, they can get to school, to a park, to a friend’s house and to after-school programs.

It means it’s a community where people want to be. Even in tough neighborhoods, we’ve used Safe Routes to School to galvanize parents and others around having more eyes on the street in order to reduce crime and to take back the streets so that they’re safe for everyone.

NPH: What are the major initiatives from the Safe Routes to School National Partnership?

Deb Hubsmith: We have four major initiatives. One is around advocacy—we’re working to strengthen funding for the program at national, state and local levels. The second major initiative is around policy change and running state and regional networks. This brings together multi-disciplinary partners to work on policy change for street-scale improvements and joint use agreements, and this is a program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The third initiative is technical assistance to local communities through programs like Communities Putting Prevention to Work and to several Kaiser Permanente sites. The fourth initiative is about producing publications and sharing best practices.

>>See reports on how to implement Safe Routes to School in lower-income communities, an educator guide, and a local policy change guide.

NPH: What is the status of Safe Routes to School nationally?

Deb Hubsmith: We have a strong national movement with many partners and more than 12,300 schools that are benefiting from the federal program. But the future of the federal program is being threatened right now. Big decisions are coming up this week on the Federal Transportation Bill. Last week a House committee voted to eliminate Safe Routes to School and public transportation funding. We’re currently doing an all-out campaign to do restore Safe Routes to School funding with many national partners to get the word out.

NPH: What can public health professionals do to advance safe routes to schools priorities?

Deb Hubsmith: Public health professionals can help a tremendous amount at the local, state and regional levels. We’ve heard a couple of ideas on public health’s role from success stories around the nation. Public health officials could call for an obesity summit in their community and bring together policymakers to come up with policy change efforts to reduce childhood obesity. Public health officials can comment on transportation plans and ensure pedestrian and bicycle facilities are included as part of road projects, building projects and zoning codes. Many local communities and states are passing ballot measures or sales tax measures or bonds to create new funding for transportation in order to revitalize communities. They can work to ensure there are measures in the communities to support healthy physical activity. Many health professionals have also been successful in conducting health impact assessments to show how different types of projects affect public health.

Obesity in America is costing us approximately $168 billion every year. By creating a healthy built environment, we’re going to save money as a society. People will be getting more physical activity and we’ll also be improving safety. There’s a tremendous amount that public health officials can do to be a part of this movement.

NPH: Anything else you want to add?

Deb Hubsmith: Regardless of what happens with the Federal Transportation Bill, the Safe Routes to School movement is alive and we need to do more than we’ve ever done before to continue to create good examples in our communities and share them nationwide. I encourage everyone to keep innovating and keep sharing success stories. We know this is the right thing for America, so we will continue on.

>>Editor’s note: The Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP) is hosted by the Bikes Belong Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and it receives funding from a variety of diverse sources. Since January 2007, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has provided support for SRTSNP’s State Network Project.

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This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.