Q&A with Gabe Rousseau, FHWA Bicycle & Pedestrian Program Manager: Walking, Bicycling and SRTS under MAP-21

Gabe Rousseau is a ten-year veteran of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and helped set up the Safe Routes to School Program when SAFETEA-LU was enacted in 2005.  Now, as Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager in the FWHA Office of Human Environment, Gabe will have a hand in Safe Routes funding again through oversight of the Transportation Alternatives Program.  An avid cyclist and walker, Gabe walked to school as a child and now cycles to work at US DOT, where he started a bike commuter group in 2007.  We’re grateful to Gabe for taking the time to thoughtfully answer our questions on all things walking, biking and SRTS.

Q: What are your main duties as manager of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program?

A: I serve as the livability team leader and the bicycle and pedestrian program manager for FHWA.  My team oversees a number of important issues, including nondiscrimination and environmental justice (i.e., ensuring that minority and low income populations are not disproportionately impacted by transportation projects), supporting the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, overseeing the Exemplary Human Environment Initiatives, and funding programs such as the new Transportation Alternatives Program and the Recreational Trails Program.

I also work on policy issues, research, funding and outreach related to walking and biking at FHWA. A few of my duties include serving as the manager for the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (which just issued a report to Congress describing how the pilot communities have benefitted from improving their walking and biking infrastructure), managing the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (the national clearinghouse on walking and biking issues), and providing technical support for colleagues, stakeholders, and the public on walking and bicycling issues. I also host an annual meeting for the State bicycle/pedestrian coordinators and serve on the Transportation Research Board Committees for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Q: What has been your professional path to this position?

A: My background is actually in human factors and research psychology and I focused on technology and safety issues for older adults. I received a PhD from the University of Georgia and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech. I worked for a while in the private sector before joining FHWA in 2002.  I’ve worked on walking and bicycling transportation issues for my whole FHWA career. I began my career at FHWA ten years ago when I joined the Human Centered Systems Team at the Turner Fairbank Highway Research Center. I conducted and managed safety-related research on walking and bicycling, older road user issues, speed management, and other safety topics. I moved to FHWA’s Office of Safety in 2005 almost exactly when SAFETEA-LU was enacted and I helped set up the new Federal SRTS Program. I worked closely with Tim Arnade who managed the program at the time. I also continued to work on bicycle and pedestrian safety issues. In 2007, I moved to the Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty to serve as the bicycle and pedestrian program manager for FHWA. I have taken on some additional responsibilities but my work on walking and bicycling is what keeps me energized.

Q: Do you bring a personal/active interest in cycling/pedestrian issues to your job?  If so, do you have a favorite walk/bike ride you can share with us?

A: Walking and bicycling are my two favorite activities. My wife, Samantha, is also an avid bicycle commuter and she and I like to walk or bike around Washington DC. My favorite bike ride, luckily for me, is my morning commute to work. I get to bike past the White House, the Washington Monument, through the Mall, and past the US Capitol. It’s a lovely ride.  DC is a great walking city and it’s hard to pick a favorite walk; I’d probably pick a walk to and from one of our favorite restaurants so we can burn off some of the calories we consume.

Q: Did you walk or bike to school when you were growing up?

A: I did. I walked to my kindergarten in Winchendon Mass., and I walked to my junior high and high school in Greensboro, N.C.

Q: FHWA’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Program webpage notes that the DOT has a bicycle commuting group.  Do you participate in that?

A: I took the lead in establishing the group. I thought it was important for US DOT to have a bike commuter group because our agency promotes biking. After posting some flyers around the building during the summer of 2007, I was able to enlist the help of other bicycle commuters at US DOT, and we launched the group later that year. When we started the group, we had about 30 members. We now have closer to 100 members. We help new commuters to find safe routes to work, share information, and have worked to improve facilities here at our offices.

Q: Can you help us understand how the Safe Routes to School Program fits within FHWA in light of MAP-21?

A: During SAFETEA-LU the SRTS program was managed by FHWA’s Office of Safety.  The Office of Human Environment, where I work, oversaw Transportation Enhancements and the Recreational Trails Program. When MAP-21 was enacted earlier this year, FHWA decided that because SRTS was no longer a standalone program, but was now an eligible activity within the new Transportation Alternatives Program, it made sense to move SRTS activities to the Office of Human Environment. Transportation Enhancements has been an important funding source for walking and bicycling projects for roughly twenty years. It is likely that the new Transportation Alternatives Program, which replaces it, will play a similar role. Given the synergies between these programs, the SRTS was a natural fit for my Office.

Q: What are the main differences we’re going to see for SRTS under MAP-21?  What challenges/opportunities do you see for SRTS?

A: The obvious difference is that there is no longer a standalone Federal SRTS program with dedicated funding. There is growing interest in walking and bicycling in communities across the country, and it’s important for people who care about these travel modes to participate in the transportation decisionmaking process. Although the standalone funding program was eliminated, Federal funds can still be used to make SRTS improvements. It’s important for people to learn more about how transportation projects take shape in their hometowns.

Q: SRTS was started in the last legislation and had funding to do things a little differently than other walking and bicycling programs within FHWA.  Is there anything that SRTS has in place that can be incorporated into other FHWA programs?

A: The enactment of MAP-21 ushers in a new era of performance measurement related to transportation funding. This move towards assessing the return on investment is likely to continue and get more sophisticated over time. The SRTS program, including the National Center for SRTS, has been a leader in developing ways to collect bike/pedestrian data that will help inform future transportation investments. It is important that we learn from the example that the SRTS program, including the State SRTS coordinators, has set regarding data collection. Collecting walking and biking data can be a challenge, but is very important going forward.

Q: How have you seen support for, and interest in, walking and cycling evolve over time?

A: The level of attention devoted to walking and bicycling has grown across this country as well as here at FHWA and US DOT. US DOT Secretary LaHood has been a champion for these modes and has relayed the message that communities across the country want safer and more convenient transportation choices.  You can see what he means when you travel to communities across the US, from small to large: bike share programs are popping up and thriving in many cities; more communities are interested in being recognized as Walk Friendly Communities through our PBIC program; cities are trying out innovative approaches to make bicycling safer; and in recent years, significant federal-aid funding has gone towards walking and biking transportation projects.

Q: What do you consider the most important issue related to walking and bicycling right now?

A: It’s difficult to pick just one issue. I think that a key issue is improving walking and biking data so that communities can maximize their return on investment. Better data related to walking and biking can help improve our understanding of safety and exposure to risk, the types of facilities people of varying ages and abilities prefer, how to prioritize improvements, where critical system gaps exist, and forecast future demand.

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for the people working on SRTS in local communities across the country?

A: Don’t focus exclusively on changes to the funding structure.  People who work on SRTS and walking and bicycling issues are passionate and dedicated to their work. Continue your great work and, if you aren’t already, make sure to get involved in your State and local transportation decisionmaking processes, particularly early in the transportation planning stage. You have made a difference in communities across the country and you will continue to do so.

Safe Routes Matters November/December 2012

Getting There Together: A Message from the Director on Optimism  ||  Q&A with Gabe Rousseau  ||  Joke contest hatches award winning Safe Routes to School program  ||  Mini Grant helps El Paso school on military base grow bike licensing program  ||  January Webinar: Walk Talk— The SRTS Call-In Show Webinar  ||  National Center launches Walking School Bus Online Training
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