Fired Up from the First Day of the Safe Routes to School National Conference

Fired Up! That’s the best way I can describe the energy on the first day of the 3rd Safe Routes to School National Conference, which is being held at the Minneapolis Convention Center. About 600 people from nearly every state in the US came here seeking to learn, share and build connections so that they can go home with new tools to improve their communities, making them safer for kids to walk and bike – improving health, communities and the environment.

The opening ceremony began at Noon. As the crowd filtered in Hall A, the sound system cranked theme tunes such as Queen’s “I want to ride my bicycle”. The atmosphere was joyful and full of anticipation as the audience sat down to hear opening remarks from emcee Zachary Meyer, who works for Blue Cross and Blue Shield Minnesota, the sponsor of the conference.

An enthusiastic welcome address was given by Minneapolis mayor and Minnesota native R.T. Ryback, who spoke passionately and eloquently about the importance of Safe Routes to School and livable communities. He challenged Portland, Oregon and said that he’s seeking to make Minneapolis the number one bicycling city in the nation.

Next up was Nancy Pullen, Deputy Director from the National Center for Safe Routes to School, who provided compelling information about the tremendous growth of the Safe Routes to School program in recent years, which is now serving more than 11,000 schools nationwide.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak next, and decided to build on the energy which started the day before at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership’s annual meeting. I talked about growing the Safe Routes to School movement, and having courage, vision and standing together. Having been a former cheerleader who can’t quite kick the habit, I got the crowd cheering to show their enthusiasm for Safe Routes to School and chanting: WE STAND TOGETHER. You can watch a video of my talk: Part 1 | Part 2

Following my speech, Nancy and I had the great honor to introduce Mr. James Oberstar, the former Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who served in Congress from 1975-2011 representing the 8th District of Minnesota. We presented him with a painting of a trail in his District, which he helped to fund with federal dollars. Mr. Oberstar is the father of Safe Routes to School in the U.S. and wrote the federal legislation, which has enabled this movement to flourish. He received a standing ovation before and after his inspiring speech.

Congressman Oberstar recounted how he “opened up” the Highway Trust Fund for bicycle and walking projects in 1991 during ISTEA, the same year his wife passed away from breast cancer. With many eyes in the room tearing over, he explained how she “wanted something good to come out of the disease” and how that led him to increase federal funding for breast cancer research from $30,000 to $650,000/year. And after hearing a speech on the rise of sedentary lifestyles and childhood obesity in the year 2000 by Dr. Richard Killingsworth, then with the CDC and now with the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, Congressman Oberstar launched two federal Pilot Programs for Safe Routes to School – one in Marin County, California (which I led along with Wendi Kallins), and one in Arlington, Massachusetts. Based on the success of the pilots, and with help from a huge grassroots movement, Mr. Oberstar was able to introduce and pass the Safe Routes to School federal legislation as part of the 2005 SAFETEA-LU transportation bill. He said that when he is asked by reporters what he considers his most important accomplishment during his 36 years in Congress, he tells them “Safe Routes to School.” He said that “Safe Routes to School is an enormous force that can create a change throughout society.”

After the opening plenary, conference attendees went to break out sessions, mixer sessions, and on bike tours, using the new Nice Ride share bikes. In the “Fresh Ideas for Encouragement” mixer, there was a lot of interest in the National Partnership’s new program Fire Up Your Feet, a new interactive grassroots engagement program filled with resources, incentives and social networking which we piloted in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota this spring at more than 25 schools. We’re aiming to expand Fire Up Your Feet to many more markets in 2012.

The second batch of break-out sessions were also a hit. I attended “Advocacy: A Key to Sustainability and Support” where our Deputy Director Margo Pedroso spoke about the importance of engaging Congressional members in Safe Routes to School. Tim Coassalter, from Senator Amy Klobuchar’s office (D-MN) also discussed constituent advocacy as being extremely important for influencing policy makers. The session also included presentations by Dorian Grilley from the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota and the Minnesota Safe Routes Network, as well as Jessica Wineburg Binder from the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Safe Routes Network. She had planned a special Safe Routes to School event for Congressman Petri (R-WI) last fall and relayed how she did it to an audience that was eagerly taking notes.

Next up was a State and Region Reception, where the exhibit hall lobby was divided into different sections and people were encouraged to get to know and make connections with others from their geographic area of the country. I had a great talk with David Cohen, Federal Highway Administration’s representative working in California with Caltrans who has been very supportive of implementing non-motorized federal-aid programs.

The day closed with a dinner and keynote addresses back in Hall A. Co-emcee Janelle Waldock, also of Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota introduced her colleague Kathleen Mock, a lawyer, who is also senior VP of marketing and public and health affairs. Kathleen talked about Blue Cross Blue Shield’s commitment to creating healthy communities, and showed an inspiring new public service announcement video. Years earlier, they took on big tobacco in the state and won.

The last speaker of the day was Sue Wollan Fan from Catalyst Communications. A former senior VP with Best Buy, Sue is now working as a non-profit community developer revitalizing northern Minneapolis by redeveloping vacant commercial properties, increasing safety and livability, and putting people back to work. She encouraged the audience to partner with businesses and to create a “big tent” approach that “invites businesses to co-create the next steps with you.”

Just when we thought the day was over, an inspiring video started on the big screens, showing teens from the region singing a song they wrote about bikes, but just as I started to really get into it, the screen fuzzed out. It seemed like there were technical difficulties – which would have been the only snag of the day – but actually, it was all planned… All of a sudden five teens busted into the room, riding their bikes from the back of the hall, heading for the main stage. They electrified the crowd with their presence, hip hop and dancing and singing. They chanted: “P.O.B. – People On Bikes! P.O.B. – People on Bikes.”

Fired-up, the crowd gave the kids a standing ovation.

I can’t wait for tomorrow…