Childhood obesity advocates are joining lawmakers in mourning former Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who championed Safe Routes to School and a variety of cycling, hiking and walking programs during his 17 terms in Congress. Oberstar died in his sleep on May 3.
Known as the “Father of Safe Routes to School,” Oberstar spent decades supporting efforts to make it easier and safer for people, especially children, to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives. In 1991, he played a critical role in ensuring that a federal transportation bill included funding for walking and bicycling. In 2005, he authored and cosponsored the SAFETEA-LU Act, a $295 billion transportation infrastructure measure that included funding to launch Safe Routes to School on a national scale.
“There are now more than 14,000 schools in all 50 states nationwide benefitting from the federal Safe Routes to School program, and we have the late Congressman Oberstar to thank and honor,” wrote Deb Hubsmith, director of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, in a blog post remembering the congressman. “In speeches in recent years Mr. Oberstar talked about Safe Routes to School as one of the most important programs he authorized in Congress and one of the programs he is proudest of. We will all miss Congressman Oberstar terribly; the Safe Routes to School National Partnership is dedicated to ensuring that his legacy for Safe Routes to School, healthy transportation and healthy kids will live on.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) echoed Hubsmith’s thoughts in a speech given on the House floor on May 7 (which also was National Bike to School Day).
“Tens of thousands of children can get to school today more safely and millions more will be more safe in the future because of his tireless efforts over two decades on behalf of that program,” Blumenauer said.
In lieu of flowers, Oberstar’s family requested that donations be given to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.
Oberstar first came to Congress in 1974. He championed transportation and infrastructure issues, and served as the chairman of the House Transportation Committee from 2007 to 2011. Although he lost his re-election bid in 2010, Oberstar continued to champion Safe Routes and similar programs
During his 36 years in the House, Oberstar worked tirelessly to ensure transportation funding wasn’t just limited to the roads, rails and runways. An avid cyclist, Oberstar believed that biking and walking should be treated as a key part of the nation’s transportation system.
From his perch on the transportation committee, Oberstar worked across the aisle to get things done. For example, the 1991 ISTEA transportation bill mandated funding for walking and biking, set up a structure that required each state to hire a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and create a statewide bicycle plan. “Jim Oberstar has been a friend, adviser and mentor to the entire bicycling community for a quarter century and he will be sorely missed by us all,” Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, said in a statement on the organization’s website.
In her blog post, Hubsmith recalled that she first met Oberstar during a bike industry/advocacy forum held in California in March 2000. During that event, Oberstar noted how the rise in childhood obesity rates related to the decline in kids walking and bicycling to school and said he planned to launch Safe Routes to School pilot programs to help reverse negative trends.
Hubsmith met with Oberstar a month later in Washington, sharing her research on Safe Routes to School programs in the United Kingdom. Oberstar deputized her with carrying out a federal Safe Routes pilot in Marin County, California during the 2000-2001 school year. Things went remarkably well — just six months after she unveiled data on the first year of the pilot, Oberstar felt confident enough to begin work on legislation to take the program nationally.
Congress authorized $612 million for the Safe Routes to School launch in 2005.
“I have never met anyone more vibrant, alive, visionary and dedicated to helping America and Americans lead better lives,” Hubsmith recalled. “That’s what Mr. Oberstar was all about – helping people. He dedicated his whole life to that cause, and he made amazing things happen. He was a legend in his own time and will be sorely missed, but always remembered. His legacy will live on each and every day when kids and families all across America are able to safely walk and bicycle to schools.”