Protecting our Most Valuable Resource
Nancy Pullen-Seufert is the Associate Director for the National Center for Safe Routes to School. The Center is located at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center and serves as the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) clearinghouse for the Federal Safe Routes to School Program.
The Federal Safe Routes to School Program was started with federal transportation legislation, with the purpose of making it safer for children to walk and bicycle to school. Another goal of the program was to reduce fuel consumption and traffic. As an outcome, not only will children get more exercise from walking and bicycling to school, but they will also breathe cleaner air along the way.
Pullen-Seufert said that transportation emissions are greatest when a vehicle is started, meaning that shorter trips will have a greater overall emissions load than longer trips. And with trips from home to school typically being three miles, encouraging parents and children to take alternative methods of getting to school can cut down on a lot of pollution.
As communities have looked to become more walkable and transit friendly, many have turned to Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs as a place to start. To help these communities and programs measure the potential benefits of their efforts, a few years ago the center convened an expert panel including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center for Environmental Health, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The panel determined that reducing the number of those short trips to school was the best indicator of success.
But the benefits didn’t stop with fewer emissions. Pullen-Seufert pointed out that younger people are more vulnerable to air pollutants, and that a large proportion of U.S. students have asthma, which is a big contributor to lost attendance days. Cleaner air helps to reduce the number and severity of negative health effects caused by air pollution.
“If there are ways where we can make air quality even just around the school campus itself better, then that can have a real impact for student health and overall student achievement,” she said.
Pullen-Seufert said the health aspect of the program meant a lot to her.
“My favorite part about my job is helping save lives. It is about trying to encourage and support safe behaviors, and being able to bring to bear a variety of methods to do that ? Being able to make changes on a population level that we know can really improve human health,” she said.
One way Pullen-Seufert and the Center encourage safe and healthy behaviors is by supporting International Walk to School Day. An annual event that started in the U.S. in 1997, Walk to School Day is now celebrated in over 40 countries.
“One of my favorite things about Walk to School Day is hearing from communities, and hearing their creativity, their energy, about how they pull off their event and their reasons for it,” she stated.
Satisfaction from her job, however, does not just come from big events. It comes from the small things, too. Like the time she spent with individual children and families while working in bicycle-related injury prevention. She recalls “having someone come back and say ‘you know what, my child crashed on their bike with the helmet you fitted them with and he’s ok.’”
Helping people stay safe and healthy is something Pullen-Seufert has wanted to do since she was young. As a child she went to a summer camp called Safety Town where kids got to practice going around a miniature town, stopping at stop signs and going to stores, to learn about safety. It was here that Pullen-Seufert’s interest in helping people live the healthiest lives possible and in protecting the nation’s resources began. That interest led to an undergraduate degree in health education. Then, while doing an internship at a hospital based injury prevention research center, she became intrigued about preventing transportation-related injuries. She decided to go on to get a master’s degree in public health because she enjoyed her work so much that she wanted to learn how to do it even better.
When asked what advice she had for students who want to make an impact in transportation, Pullen-Seufert suggested, “doing a little bit of thinking about what it was that attracted you to transportation, what aspect of it.” She said knowing what caught your interest will help guide students to the right subject matter to explore further. She added that no matter what students want to do in transportation, having a background in the sciences and good communication skills are always a plus; however, it will take a variety of disciplines and skill sets to keep innovative ideas flowing and the transportation industry moving forward.
“I would encourage people to think about transportation and all of the different skills and talents that might be of a particular interest for a student,” she said.
To learn more about the National Center for Safe Routes to School or the Safe Routes to School Program, and to see how they have made an impact in your own community, you can start by visiting the NCSRS website. Also, check out the Federal Highway Administrations web page on bicycle and pedestrian travel to learn about the environmental benefits of these forms of transportation.