The History of Safe Routes to School
The term “Safe Routes to School” was first coined in Denmark in the 1970s. Since that time, Safe Routes to School has spread internationally. There are active programs throughout Europe, in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
The first Safe Routes to School program in the USA took place in the Bronx, NY in 1997, the same year that grassroots programs began in Northern California and Walk to School Day was launched in October in Chicago.
In 1999, California became the first state in the nation to pass legislation funding a new Safe Routes to School program. The program redirected one-third of federal safety funds to Safe Routes to School, and began providing more than $20 million per year for new bike lanes, pathways, crossings and sidewalks to help kids walk and bicycle to schools throughout the state.
In the year 2000, Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) asked Bikes Belong Coalition for information on Safe Routes to School. Congressman Oberstar had become concerned that, within the span of a single generation, the number of children walking and bicycling to schools had declined drastically, childhood obesity was on the rise, and rush hour traffic in local communities was escalating because of parents driving their children to schools. After receiving the inquiry from Congressman Oberstar, Bikes Belong Coalition contacted California residents Deb Hubsmith (the future founder of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and former executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition) and Patrick Seidler (of Wilderness Trail Bikes) for additional information on Safe Routes to School. They provided information about the California legislation and European programs in a white paper.
Based on Congressman Oberstar's interest in “changing the habits of an entire generation”, in 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued $50,000 each for federal Safe Routes to School pilot programs in Marin County, California and Arlington, Massachusetts. These pilot programs were successful with getting more kids to walk and bicycle, and within a year after the launch of the pilot programs, grassroots Safe Routes to School efforts and demand began expanding rapidly throughout the United States. Deb Hubsmith began making regular trips to Washington, DC to update Congressman Oberstar and other members on the success of the Safe Routes to School pilot program.
In 2002, the America Bikes coalition was created to ensure that bicycling would receive its fair share of funding in the federal transportation bill that became SAFETEA-LU. America Bikes brought together an unprecedented alliance of eight nonprofit organizations. A key goal of America Bikes and the national movement was to secure a new Safe Routes to School program in the federal transportation bill for improvements on pedestrian and bicycle access. In 2002 and 2003, Deb Hubsmith worked with Congressman Oberstar’s staff on writing the federal legislation for Safe Routes to School, which ultimately became Section 1404 of SAFETEA-LU.
Building a Safe Routes to School Structure
In 2003, Deb Hubsmith approached the League of American Bicyclists regarding the need to develop a structure to support Safe Routes to School program implementation and create the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation helped with convening organizations to develop this structure.
In June 2003, on the same day as the group’s first meeting, Congressman Oberstar introduced the Pedestrian and Cycling Equity Act for the 21st Century, which included funding for a national Safe Routes to School program.
For the next two years, Hubsmith worked with the League of America Bicyclists and existing bicycle and pedestrian groups across the nation to develop the structure for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a network of groups and professionals organized to speak with a united voice regarding the need and means for developing and sustaining successful Safe Routes to School programs.
Federal Legislation for Safe Routes to School
Through the passage of the new federal transportation bill MAP-21 in 2012, Safe Routes to School was consolidated into the Transportation Alternatives program, but is also eligible within other program areas including the Surface Transportation Program, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality and the Highway Safety Improvement Program. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership is working with partners to ensure that Safe Routes to School survives and thrives under MAP-21.
Safe Routes to School National Partnership
To ensure that the Safe Routes to School money authorized by the new federal transportation bill is being put to the best possible use, the National Partnership was founded in July 2005. Bikes Belong Coalition provided initial funding for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. The National Partnership has been directed and led from its inception by its founder Deb Hubsmith, a national leader in the active transportation movement.
The National Partnership is a fast-growing network of hundreds of organizations, government agencies, businesses, schools and professional groups working to set goals, share best practices, leverage infrastructure and program funding and advance policy change to help agencies that implement Safe Routes to School programs. Our mission is to advance safe walking and bicycling to and from schools, and in daily life, to improve the health and well-being of America’s children and to foster the creation of livable, sustainable communities.
As of 2012, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership has staff working all throughout the United States focusing on:
- Federal advocacy
- State and regional policy change
- Local technical assistance and engaging families
- Sharing best practices
In May 2012, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized the Safe Routes to School National Partnership with its prestigious “Game Changer” Innovation Award. You can read the most recent annual report for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership here (scroll down).