Q&A with Jessica Meaney: Safe Routes to School National Partnership

Jessica Meaney advocates for safe walkable streets.

Jessica Meaney advocates for safe walkable streets.

This interview is part of a series of interviews featuring sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&As.

As we wrote about last month, communities all over the world celebrated International Walk to School events. We interviewed Jessica Meaney, California policy manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a national non-profit advocacy group, to better understand efforts and the benefits of getting kids to walk to school in Los Angeles. Based in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, Jessica coordinates two Safe Routes to Schools networks: one at the state level in California, and one at the regional level in Southern California. These networks (that residents are totally open to joining) bring together advocacy groups, parents and community members, government agencies and other leaders to ensure that Safe Routes to School (SRTS) succeeds in California by leveraging resources and addressing and improving regional transportation policies.

Jessica has also been living car-free in Los Angeles for more than 10 years.

Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be a SRTS National Partnership staffer.

I’d been working as a Regional Transportation Planner for the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) for over three years. Last October, thanks to a scholarship from APBP and support from SCAG, I was able to attend Walk 21, an international conference on walking.  I came home from that conference totally fired up and motivated. Working on bicycle and pedestrian issues in Southern California can be very challenging at times, and this conference re-inspired me, reminding me that change was doable and was happening all over the world. It made me to want to step outside the realm of a public agency and into a role of advocacy. I’d also heard a lot about the director and founder of the Partnership, Deb Hubsmith. She was someone who really had a reputation for getting things done, and I welcomed the opportunity to work and learn alongside her.

How did SCAG prepare you for your Safe Routes to School work? What has that work been about?

What I’d learned at the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a public transportation agency concerned with regional transportation policy, made me a marketable candidate for this position.

I’d worked on their 2009 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP)–something the partnership is looking to directly impact. My master’s degree is in sociology, so I’m not trained as a planner, but the years I worked at SCAG gave me hands-on experience in transportation planning processes, not to mention exposure to some great regional thinkers and studies.

My approach to transportation began with looking at the key roles public transit, walking and bicycling play in social cohesion, so the years at SCAG helped me continue to further develop my perspective with hands-on experience and observations on policy development and adoption.

Safe Routes to School is a movement. It’s something everyone can be a part of. It’s about walkable and bike-able communities for everyone, regardless of age or ability. One of my favorite things about Safe Routes is that you don’t have to be a student, a parent or a city employee to care about having a neighborhood where families can live and have their kids go to school safely.

It’s also about mobility and independence–creating spaces we can enjoy walking and biking to with ease. Can kids in your neighborhood run around and have independence? Can they get to school safely? If not, why not? Answering these types of questions are a key priority for the health of our communities.

It’s fun to think about this movement expanding beyond students and schools–a Safe Routes for all. It’s an idea they’re talking about in Sacramento as they develop their regional, long-range transportation plan.

You’ve been working hard on developing a SRTS platform to try to influence SCAG’s next RTP. Why focus on an RTP?

Much of my regional work is modeled after successes gained in the Bay Area, where they were able to have the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the area’s Metro Planning Organization (MPO), dedicate regional funding to Safe Routes and active transportation policies and programs. So now, the Bay Area has federal, state and now regional Safe Routes to School funds. It’s pretty awesome. Communities all over California want Safe Routes funds.  In fact, only one out of five Safe Routes projects in California gets funded. So it’s great to see regional leaders recognize this and address it.

The Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership sees a tremendous amount of value in having regional advocates working to ensure MPO’s meaningfully seek to create walkable and bikable communities. The partnership also saw that more advocates were needed to be involved in RTP development, a process that allocates billions of dollars. My position as well those others funded to work in the D.C. and Atlanta areas are working with other groups to help bring a voice that’s been missing to our regional transportation visions.

How the Southern California Regional Network works, via Facebook.

How the Southern California Regional Network works, via Facebook.

In the SCAG Region, less than 0.5 percent of all regional transportation funding goes toward bike and pedestrian projects, yet 12 precent of all trips are made by bicycling and walking. And, worse yet, 25 perecent of all roadway fatalities and accidents involve pedestrians and bicyclists. It is a huge problem that these numbers are acceptable to our policy makers. Safety should be our number one priority for all of our communities, especially for our most vulnerable community members such as kids. All users of our roadways and community space should be safe and protected–not just  for those in cars. The other day I read that according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for people in the U.S. under age 34—that blew my mind.

Here in California, we are fortunate to have climate legislation that is working to further increase the sync between our land use and transportation investments to reduce car tips (SB 375). Now more than ever, local short trips (40 percent of all trips are less than 2 miles) become great solutions to our regional challenges, and it’s key that our policy makers know this. Many still see the need for big regional infrastructure investment, which in many instances is great—yet we still seem to continue to overlook that creating walkable and bike-able communities offer a great, cost efficient investment to meet these challenges, not to mention the co-benefits that it brings.

We’re lucky in California; we have a lot of great existing legislation and policy for active transportation. We need to now see it implemented.

In the SRTS Network Meetings you’ve been leading, I’ve noticed that you give a lot of space for folks to share. What have you seen others get most excited about? What’s been inspiring for you?

Everything. I’m really lucky to get paid to do what I love and am continually inspired by the opportunities for change, change towards community wellness for all members.

The concept that transportation change is doable and is in fact happening in communities all over is an exciting story to share and to hear about. Many of our transportation decision makers still value speed and capacity as the key indicators for success of a transportation network. We need a way to help them see that that is no longer the only metric to be measuring our investments by.  Stories from their constituents help do that.

By creating a space to hear about best practices and local stories about how peers are being leaders in their own communities fires me up, and I think that fires up others, too. I also find it really valuable, and in fact, a key part of my work, to be able to then share their Safe Routes stories with policy makers across the state. We need champions all over for this, and we need to celebrate all those who are working so hard, many unpaid for their efforts. This is an issue anyone can relate to and talk about. I’d love to think I am part of a movement that is working to be more inclusive and recognizes all the important contributions of many. To me, working to see transportation policy that truly values walkable and bike-able communities is going to take team effort, and a big team at that.

Anything else?

Thanks for providing me the chance to talk about this. I’d love the opportunity to thank Congressman Oberstar for his legacy of creating the Safe Routes to School program. It is tough to lose such an amazing champion for walkable and bike-able communities. We will all have to work really hard to maintain his legacy.

Also, there are a lot of great resources to get something going in your own community. While the organization I work for has a focus on policy, the National Center for Safe Routes to School, which is funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), has amazing programmatic resources. And if you live in California, please join the State and/or Regional Network and get involved. We’re on Twitter, Facebook and WordPress, too. Or, just send me an email to find out more: Jessica (at) saferoutespartnership.org.

A "walking school bus" with Mayor Ron Loveridge of Riverside, California. Photo via Facebook.

A "walking school bus" with Mayor Ron Loveridge of Riverside, California. Photo via Facebook.

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