#10YearsofSRTS: Smart Steps and a Clear Vision

When Deb Hubsmith founded the National Partnership in 2005 – the same year that the first federal Safe Routes to School legislation was passed, authorizing funding to 50 states and the District of Columbia – her vision for the Safe Routes to School movement was much broader than the $612 million in initial funding outlined in the legislation. From the very beginning, Hubsmith believed that Safe Routes to School had the potential to transform our cities and towns into healthy, active communities where all people can walk, bicycle, and be physically active. She was determined to grow and expand the program, increase funding, and leverage additional resources to improve conditions for walking and bicycling and advance policies that supported Safe Routes to School, such as Complete Streets, shared use, and school wellness policies.

At the same time, she also recognized that from the get-go, states would need guidance and leadership to administrate the program successfully and effectively. Programs would need to be able to measure and evaluate their results to prove that there was high demand for walking and bicycling to school, and to show that Safe Routes to School was effective at increasing physical activity and increasing the number of children walking and bicycling to school.

Hubsmith understood that the most effective way to help states and communities be successful was to have staff on the ground, working directly with departments of transportation, school districts, and policymakers to build broad support and create effective Safe Routes to School programs. In 2007, the National Partnership launched a campaign to put staff on the ground in nine key states plus the District of Columbia – areas that were chosen due to their high rates of childhood obesity, diversity, and poverty.

Between 2005 and 2013, through these networks and the steering committee of leaders around the country, the National Partnership kept its hand on the pulse of how states were setting up and administering their Safe Routes to School programs. The organization continued to grow and add new staff, placing field staff in new states and regions and sharing best practices to ensure that strong projects and programs were implemented effectively. For the first time, Safe Routes to School advocates were connecting departments of transportation, public health, elected officials, and educators – bringing together leaders from these fields to collaborate on shared goals of creating healthy, active communities where children have safe spaces to bicycle and walk to school. Still today, we often hear various local coalition partners exclaim that Safe Routes to School was the catalyst for bringing diverse groups together in their community.

Key to the National Partnership’s success and growth during these early years was the support it received from longtime partners PeopleForBikes (formerly the Bikes Belong Foundation). Instead of starting up a traditional nonprofit, Hubsmith sought out a host organization – and PeopleForBikes provided a strong administrative foundation that enabled Deb to direct her energies and that of her small staff on advancing policy and providing technical assistance in areas with the greatest demand and the highest need while maintaining a strong national network of leaders and supporters.

Deb and Tim Blumenthal

Deb Hubsmith and PeopleForBikes President Tim Blumenthal, front

"We thought from the start that Safe Routes to School would be an excellent investment," said Erik Esborg, PeopleForBikes Vice President of Finance. "Deb's clear vision and dynamic leadership style inspired us to provide an administrative backbone and unrestricted cash support--that would total more than $1 million during the Partnership's first seven years. Thanks to her stellar guidance, the organization flourished and the Safe Routes movement grew dramatically."

PeopleForBikes provided administrative oversight for the organization while a steering committee comprised of diverse individuals including Dr. Sandy Stenmark, Andy Clarke, Scott Bricker, Wendy Landman, and others offered leadership and vision to the National Partnership’s work. At the same time, with the confidence of PeopleForBikes and the bicycle industry backing the National Partnership’s mission and work, Hubsmith was able to build trust and leverage additional support from other major funders such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Kaiser Permanente.

By 2010, the National Partnership had grown to a $1.5 million dollar operation with networks in 22 states and regions and the federal program had awarded more than $500 million to 10,000 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In the process, states and Safe Routes to School champions had learned key lessons that would continue to inform the Safe Routes to School movement going forward.

1. Work collaboratively with diverse partners. By involving a variety of partners and local communities, including transportation, education, public health, and elected officials, each jurisdiction will discover more ways to accomplish mutual policy objectives and goals. Cross-governmental partnerships strengthened understanding of how state policies were implemented at the local level and the real impact on children’s ability to walk and bicycle to school safely.

2. Show that Safe Routes to School works. In 2010, a study was published by UC Berkeley showing that local Safe Routes to School programs were effective at increasing awareness of walking and bicycling, increasing safe behaviors of road users near schools, and creating momentum for policy and environmental change. Later, additional studies would further support the evidence that Safe Routes to School increases walking and bicycling and improves safety.

3. Focus on areas with high demand and high need, especially low-income communities and communities of color. Central to our work is a focus on social and health equity to ensure that underserved communities and schools are able to advance Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets, shared use, and healthy community design. From the beginning, staff worked to increase the number of Safe Routes to School applications funded for low-income communities and advancing policies that expanded opportunities to be physically active, such as shared use agreements.

These core values shape the Safe Routes to School movement today. Deb’s smart, incremental steps, tenacious vision and great partnerships shaped what the National Partnership organization has become.   In next month’s installment of #10YearsofSRTS, we will hear from one of our closest partners, the National Center for Safe Routes to School.