Safety Story with Michelle Lieberman: Advancing Safe Routes to School

Michelle's Safety Story

In this installment of Stories From the Field, Michelle Lieberman from the Safe Routes Partnership shares her experiences building safe, active and healthy communities through policy change, partnerships and technical assistance for advancing safer walking and rolling to school. Read more below!

What is your current role? 

I am the Consulting and Program Support Director at the Safe Routes Partnership. I oversee technical assistance and resource development for communities around the country that are seeking to improve their built environment and active transportation initiatives.

What inspired you to work in active transportation? 

I’ve been interested in how urban planning influences the health of the communities ever since I was a planning grad student at UC Irvine. My original Master’s capstone project proposal fell through and I picked up working on a Safe Routes to School plan instead. To be honest, I took it on because the project scope was already defined and there was an enthusiastic “client.” But, the project really opened my eyes to how auto-dependent I was personally, and how where I lived had a large influence on how I got around. I carried this realization past graduation and jumped on the first chance I had to work on active transportation projects. There are many aspects of healthy equitable communities, but I see active transportation as one of the key ways to address disparities, promote health, and have a positive impact on communities in Southern California, where I live.

How does your organization encourage safety for people that walk, bike, or roll for transportation

Our mission is to advance safe walking and rolling to and from schools and in everyday life, improving the health and well-being of people of all races, income levels, and abilities, and building healthy, thriving communities for everyone. We do this by advancing policy change at the federal, state, regional, and local levels, catalyzing support for safe, healthy, active communities with partners around the country, and sharing our expertise as we learn from the field. My role is focused primarily on that last piece – sharing our expertise through direct technical assistance as well as developing toolkits, reports, and guides for others around the country to use.

Participants in safe routes to school workshop on walk assessment in Rancho Cordova

Safe Routes to School workshop in Rancho Cordova, CA

What are the key elements of a successful active transportation project or program?

Community engagement is critical! Without engaging the people who live, work, and play in the area where the project or program is going to happen, we can’t truly understand what the needs and barriers are. And without community engagement, we run the risk of making “improvements” that are ineffective, or even unwanted and detrimental to the local community.

What lessons or valuable takeaways did you gain from a recent active transportation project or program?

In 2019 we conducted a census of Safe Routes to School programs around the country. Through the project I heard about how individual programs were started, the struggles they have had, and the creative ways they have organized themselves and found resources to sustain their work. Some takeaways from the census project that have really stuck with me are:

  • There are hundreds of robust and inspiring programs around the country – strong and innovative Safe Routes to School programs in rural, suburban, and urban areas.
  • The absence of a centralized national initiative and dedicated funding for Safe Routes to School has not stopped or slowed Safe Routes to School programming efforts. This is exciting!
  • It can take a significant amount of time and money for a program to have a deep impact on all kids or schools within its region. While many Safe Routes to School programs start out through grassroots volunteer efforts, they really need larger resources to be sustainable. We all have more work to do!

If you had a superpower and could change anything, what would the future of active transportation safety look like? 

All kids and their families are able to get to school safely without getting in a car! This means changing land use patterns and transportation networks in many places so that schools are located in the hearts of neighborhoods, there are well maintained sidewalks, low stress bicycle facilities, and people walking and rolling are prioritized over those in cars.

This Stories From the Field interview was conducted in collaboration with UC Berkeley SafeTREC. The opinions and perspectives expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of SafeTREC.

Michelle Lieberman leads discussion at Safe Routes to School Workshop in Rancho Cordova

Michelle Lieberman

Consulting and Program Support Director

Safe Routes Partnership