This week, the Safe Routes to School National Conference convenes in Minneapolis, a progressive city determined to become the most bicycle friendly in the nation. But even here, far from the nation’s capital, in a region celebrated for its massive greenway system, drama inside the Beltway has instilled an air of urgency to the event.
In 2005, SAFETEA-LU (Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act) created the federal Safe Routes to School program to get more kids to bike and walk to school by improving infrastructure and creating encouragement programs that make those active trips safe and appealing. The funding for the program is but a tiny drop in the mammoth transportation budget — a mere 0.25 percent of federal transportation spending. But those dollars have been a crucial foundation in building a wide and growing movement.
As is the case for so many progressive programs, though, there’s a very real threat that the well of dedicated dollars for Safe Routes to School could dry up in the next transportation bill. That was apparent from the opening moments of the biennial gathering.
Deb Hubsmith, the director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and a key player in developing and advancing “Safe Routes” nationwide, appealed to a huge crowd of more than 600 participants for three things: courage, faith and immediate action.
“As you know, we have some challenges,” she said. “Some people might be discouraged by what they’ve heard about Congress and the federal debt. The transportation bill is up for reauthorization and there’s fighting about what will happen with the future. Some say Safe Routes to School is not a federal priority.”
“In the face of this discussion right now, we need to have courage,” she added. “We need to know that some of the best outcomes come from challenges in front of us. When something is at risk it creates an opportunity; do we want to go backwards or have a future with healthy kids and healthy communities.”