By Risa Wilkerson on April 13, 2016
At the fifth Safe Routes to School National Conference, the theme was Intersections: Where Transportation and Health Meet. The sessions were enlightening, and the intersection theme went even deeper. Throughout the conversations, I noticed an intersection of human connection and equity.
Keynote speaker Kevin Carroll reminded us that being in motion together (play) is serious business. He shared his own story about how having access to a public park (and a red rubber ball) saved his life. It connected him to his community and key mentors; gave him a venue for learning how to negotiate and socialize; and kept him engaged in life. He believes in advancing human connection through movement, whether through active play or active transportation.
Human connection is critical if we are to join together, leverage the potency of inclusion and build from a common bond. These are aspects of Policy Link’s Equity Manifesto in which they define equity as “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential. Unlocking the promise of the nation by unleashing the promise in us all.”
To fully address equity and realize our promise, people need to get to know each other. Another keynote speaker, Gil Penalosa, reminded us that cyclovias (open streets events) create public places where people who don’t usually interact can meet as equals (in that everyone has equal access and can experience common joy together). He noted that Frederick Law Olmstead was inspired to create places like New York’s Central Park in order to generate a sense of community and cohesion that doesn’t happen when people remain separate from each other.
In addition to creating places for people to meet, we must recognize when equity can be advanced. For example, during one session, I learned that the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (National Partnership) was involved in a southern California initiative to include an environmental justice appendix in a regional transportation plan. National Partnership staff worked with local partners to ensure that important issues were included in the analysis. For example, the original plan didn’t filter for children ages 5-12, a group which represents elementary-aged children who may have unique exposures to environmental hazards (such as poor air quality due to heavy traffic around schools). In addition, they added categories for those who don’t speak English and households without a vehicle, both of which are key and vulnerable populations.
In another workshop, a walking school bus program in Cincinnati Public Schools was highlighted. Crime maps were overlaid onto school-based maps and are improving the commute to school in areas with high poverty and crime, testing approaches to increase safety for walkers and bikers. As Carmen Burks, Safe Routes to School coordinator for Cincinnati Public Schools said, “How can we say we’re only going to fund transportation for kids riding a school bus? This is an equity issue.”
Throughout the conference, we were reminded to create places and opportunities for people to gather and experience their common humanness. To do that, we will need to meet with intentionality, especially at key intersections that turn us toward a better future for all. Let’s meet there, invite others to join us, and move forward together.