Alex Smith: Coordinating Large District School Travel Plans to Improve Walking and Biking to School in Columbus, Ohio

While we could only give one Hubsmith award, we were impressed by all of the dedicated individuals who were nominated for an award. We’ll be profiling each of the nominees over the next few months and look forward to lifting up great work from all around the country.

Alex Smith serves as Safe Routes to School Coordinator and Active Transportation Program manager for Columbus Public Health, where he has led efforts to implement Large District School Travel Plans to increase safe walking and biking to school at Columbus City Schools. An alumnus of Columbus City Schools himself, Alex has breathed life and energy into the Columbus Safe Routes to School program and ensured that walking and biking will be championed as public health efforts for years to come.

Alex Smith and teamKerry Orton, Alex Smith, and Rebecca Cray work together on Safe Routes to School and public health projects.

“With his lifelong support for promoting active transportation and livable, sustainable communities, Alex is a true embodiment of the mission of Safe Routes to School. In both his formal position as a program manager at Columbus Public Health and during his daily life, Alex acts as a champion of active transportation and public health for children and their families across the city,” said Alex’s colleague at Columbus Public Health, Rebecca Cray.

Alex began his efforts to build support for Safe Routes to School in Columbus by coordinating one of the first Large District School Travel Plans in the United States, including 94 K-8 schools and 38,174 students from across the city district. He took the lead on assembling a team of relevant stakeholders (including representatives from Columbus City Schools, the Columbus Division of Police, the Safe Routes Partnership, and the Mayor’s office), and solicited significant public input with surveys sent to parents of over 30,000 students. He also coordinated an accompanying Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to prioritize the travel plan’s implementation, identifying schools with the most urgent need for Safe Routes to School interventions. The HIA used socio-demographic data along with a selection of health indicators to decide upon 15 focus schools out of the 94 Columbus City Schools with Kindergarten – 8th grade students. This data was used to make predictions and recommendations that would help inform the travel plan steering committee on how toe ensure that health and social equity would be taken into consideration within the plan.

Highland ElementaryHighland Elementary is one of the schools Alex has worked with to get more kids walking and biking safely.

As a result of Alex’s efforts, the completed travel plan was endorsed by Columbus City Council, Columbus City Schools Superintendent and Board of Education, the City of Columbus Health Commissioner, and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. The final product now serves as an essential guiding document for current and long-range Safe Routes programming and infrastructure efforts in Columbus.

While working on the travel plan, Alex continues to engage directly with individual schools to build sustainable relationships with principals, social workers, community partners, and involved parents. Alex has perfected the art of identifying champions for programming at each school, and takes every opportunity to engage directly with children by facilitating bicycle rodeos, Walk and Bike to School days, and tactical urbanism events.

“Having supportive administrators at the school level makes all the difference,” said Alex as he described successful walking and biking programs at Columbus schools. As an example, he highlighted the principal at Ohio Elementary School, Olivia Williams, who took the lead on securing bike racks from a school that was closing down and recruiting volunteers to paint and install them right near the school’s entrance.

Alex is committed to serving those schools and children with the highest need. In addition to building a network of transportation, district, and public health partners, Alex connects with community groups in underserved neighborhoods, such as the Lindon neighborhood in NE Columbus, where violence is a deterrent to walking and biking. In Lindon, district and law enforcement staff partner with grassroots community organizations like Porch Parents, a group started by parents who hang flags from their front porches to signal to students passing by on the street that the house is a safe space.

“Our vision for Safe Routes to School in Columbus is to keep working with the schools that are already engaged, to continue to build relationships with new schools, and to create resources and toolkits that support the students, schools, and administrators in our city. We want everyone to be aware of these resources, and know that we’re here to support them,” said Alex.