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Safe Routes to School Celebrates 10 Years

By Risa Wilkerson on August 6th, 2015

The beginning of a new school year triggers a change in most families’ rhythms as they get back to the daily school commute. Thanks to the Safe Routes to School movement, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in the United States, this process has changed considerably over the past decade. In 2005, the transportation bill SAFETEA-LU dedicated funding to implement Safe Routes to School through Departments of Transportation in all 50 states. That summer, Deb Hubsmith founded the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (National Partnership) to provide national leadership for policy change, advocate for continued funding and catalyze support for safe, active and healthy communities with partners and leaders at all levels. I recently spoke with the National Partnership’s Executive Director, Cass Isidro, to see how things have changed in the last decade.

What is the most significant progress made over the last decade to improve options for healthy, active school commutes?

Ten years is a very short time to change social norms, yet Safe Routes to School has moved from the idea stage to full adoption in many communities in the United States. Other places have achieved supportive policies, infrastructure improvements and significant increases in walking and biking to school. Research has also contributed to these successes by creating confidence that Safe Routes to School increases physical activity and improves safety. Social and environmental change take time, and while we still have a lot of work to do, the Safe Routes to School movement has taken hold, is not going away and has amazing momentum. Clearly, families and communities highly value the ability to safely walk and bike not only to school, but also in everyday life. We want our children to feel safe, trust their environment and to develop the confidence and independence that comes with navigating the path to school, to the playground, to their soccer game and to the local store easily, safely and routinely.

What is the most pressing issue that must be addressed in order for active transportation to be the national norm and accessible to all?

To shift the perceptions and behaviors around our modes of day-to-day transportation, we must consider the context and culture of the local community as well as the levers we can influence at the state and national scale. The National Partnership absolutely believes that this tiered approach is necessary. While rates of walking and biking to school have increased, we are also aware that in lower-income communities where the rates for walking and biking are the highest, children are often exposed to harassment and violence on their daily commute. We are working with new partners at the local and national level to address these emerging challenges with a strong commitment to equity. To create a nation where active transportation to school and beyond is not only possible, but is also the norm, we have to ensure that we are making progress for everyone, at every level.

How is Safe Routes to School connecting to healthy communities work to leverage systems change in schools and beyond?

From the beginning, the National Partnership has been about making connections and bringing people and organizations together for collaborative work related to its mission. This focus and the partnerships that have been established with Let’s Move! Active Schools, the National PTA, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Kaiser Permanente’s Thriving Schools program have provided education and resource opportunities for parents and school leaders. The alignment with these partners has ensured that Safe Routes to School is a part of the plan for an active school. And the collaborative partnership model that is at the core of the mission of the National Partnership is now also being leveraged in our work to promote Complete Streets, ensuring safe walking and biking for everyone as well as extending physical activity beyond the school day through shared use agreements.

What keeps you passionate about this issue?

I truly believe that the future of our nation depends on our ability to provide safe and active environments for our kids. Not only for obesity and disease prevention, but also for their basic quality and quantity of life. For me it’s very simple: we have learned that the way we are living our lives is not working, and I believe that we are obligated to fix it.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.