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Safe Routes to School founder Deb Hubsmith loses battle with cancer

Published August 19, 2015
Updated with information on memorial services.

FAIRFAX, Calif. (BRAIN) — Deb Hubsmith, the longtime leader of the Safe Routes to School movement in the U.S., passed away Tuesday after a nearly two-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia. She was 46. 

Hubsmith was the founder of Safe Routes to School National Partnership, which was launched in 2005 with support from the Bikes Belong Foundation, which hosted the National Partnership as a program of their nonprofit organization. She championed active transportation for two decades at local, regional, state and national levels. 

Hubsmith got her start in grassroots transportation advocacy in 1996 after a serious car collision, after which she rode her bike, walked, and used public transit as her primary means of transportation.

“It wasn’t just Safe Routes,” said Tim Blumenthal, president of PeopleForBikes. “She started that U.S. movement. But she also did a ton for bike riding in Marin County and was the behind-the-scenes mastermind of work in Sacramento. She was sophisticated when nobody else was on how to get legislation passed and talk with legislators and governors.”

Hubsmith co-led the development of Marin County, California’s Safe Routes pilot program, and participated in the development of the nation’s first statewide Safe Routes to School program in California. She led the advocacy effort to pass the first Safe Routes to School legislation by Congress, resulting in $1.1 billion for Safe Routes to School in all 50 states. 

Hubsmith responded to the growing demand for creating walkable and bikeable environments for children by founding the National Partnership in 2005 and grew the organization from an all-volunteer organization to a coalition including more than 700 partners, a $3 million annual budget and nearly 30 staff throughout the country.

During her tenure as the National Partnership’s director, Hubsmith testified before congressional committees about the benefits of Safe Routes to School, served as a keynote speaker at numerous events and co-led the California advocacy campaign and coalition that secured the new $130 million per year Active Transportation Program.  

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized Hubsmith’s leadership with a Pioneering Innovation Award as a game changer in advancing policies and strategies to prevent and control obesity.

Hubsmith was the founding executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition in 1998 and then worked as advocacy director, building the organization from the ground-up and spearheading infrastructure projects including bringing $25 million to Marin County for bicycle and pedestrian paths, building the Cal Park Hill Tunnel, and helping to lead the campaign to get the SMART train and pathway funded and designed. 

Hubsmith, who was on medical leave since her diagnosis in 2013, had stepped down from her role as executive director of the National Partnership in September 2014 to focus on her health, but remained a board member and strategic advisor. 

“She was fully engaged right up to the end, never missing a board meeting or conference call,” Blumenthal noted, adding that Hubsmith had an unmatched drive, clear vision and forcefulness, which were key assets in making her case with lawmakers. 

Safe Routes to School National Partnership board chair Risa Wilkerson announced her passing on the organization’s website, where she paid homage to Hubsmith’s legacy. 

“I’ve had the pleasure of serving in a voluntary leadership capacity for the National Partnership since the beginning ... It was an honor to learn with and from Deb during that time. She accomplished more in her short life than many do in twice that time. She often said that she never had children of her own, choosing instead to dedicate her life to making our world a healthier place and believing she could do that better with laser-like focus,” Wilkerson wrote. 

More than 15,000 schools have received federal funding for Safe Routes programs, which create more walkable and bikeable environments, she noted. 

PeopleForBikes has launched the Deb Hubsmith Legacy Fund to ensure her work continues. PFB will contribute $10,000 to the fund and is reaching out to board members and the industry to contribute to the fund with a goal to raise $50,000 over the next 30 days. The money raised will go toward continuing the Safe Routes to School National Partnership’s work.

Funeral services will be held at Limantour Beach in West Marin Friday, Aug. 28 at 10 a.m., and are open to family, colleagues and friends.

A celebration of life for family, friends and the wider community is planned for Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Mill Valley Community Center.  

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that gifts be made in Hubsmith's name to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership or the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  

Below is a video about Deb Hubsmith’s life and work that was shown at the National Bike Summit, which she loyally attended every year.  

Topics associated with this article: Advocacy/Non-profits, People

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