Q&A With: Joe Toole, Associate Administrator for the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Safety

Background

Photo of Joe TooleThe National Center had the privilege of welcoming Joe Toole, Associate Administrator, Office of Safety, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), as a special guest at the 2010 SRTS State Coordinators National Meeting. The Office of Safety oversees the federal SRTS program and Mr. Toole has been a highly visible and inspiring voice for SRTS. We caught up with Mr. Toole after his presentation to the State Coordinators and asked a few more questions about his perspective on the federal SRTS program and livability.

Q&A Excerpts from an Interview with Joe Toole, Associate Administrator for the FHWA's Office of Safety

Q: How have you seen SRTS change over the past few years?

A: I think the main thing that I've seen is that there is a growing awareness of the value of the Safe Routes to School program at the national level. The network that has been created through this program and through the State Coordinators is something that I think is envied by many. The network has really grown and become a model of how we can create a more engaged community in transportation decisions.

Q: What challenges/opportunities do you see for SRTS?

A: I think the biggest challenge is that the need for SRTS is so great. I think all of us who are involved with the SRTS program see that the issues we face involve many other considerations such as transportation and community planning. It could be very easy to lose focus of our mission — to get more children walking and biking to school safely — and try to take on too much with the resources that we have available to us.

Q: There is discussion about the U.S. Department of Transportation's Livability Initiative. What is that and what does livability mean?

A: It seems as though every meeting I go to, that's a question that surfaces. I try to describe it in two words. The first word is choice, meaning to give people choices for their mobility. This could be public transportation, biking, pedestrian, and any number of other things, but the important thing is to provide a true range of transportation choices. The second word is empowerment, which means giving communities the tools and resources they need to provide those choices.

Q: How does SRTS relate to livability?

A: I think SRTS is an excellent example of what can be done to foster more transportation choices for students, teachers and their families. It very much also reflects the idea of empowerment by encouraging schools and local communities to work together to find solutions.

Q: What is the U.S. DOT doing to promote livability?

A: We're doing a number of things to promote livability. I can tell you that livability is a very high priority within the department. One of the first things we are doing is identifying best practices. For example, where in the country can we find examples of communities that have made and are making these sorts of decisions? We're also expanding our partnerships and recognizing that a lot of what we consider also involves housing, urban development, and the environment, and clearly it involves the metropolitan and state areas as well. Reaching out and involving these partners more is helping move things forward. The third thing the department is doing is really trying to formulate programs and policies that can make livability an institutional part of the transportation endeavor.

Q: What does a livable community look like?

A: The first thing that I would say is that there is no one picture. If we truly believe that communities need to be empowered to create the solutions that are right for them, then we'll see a variety of pictures of livability I think a general image that is consistent with livability is actually seeing people moving about the community, and that's a good place to start. You'll see people walking and talking and enjoying the resources in their community. I lived in a neighborhood at one time when the only time I saw my neighbor was when his garage door would open or close. Except for seeing the car going into the garage, I wouldn't have known that anyone actually lived next door to me. An important part of livability is having a community where people feel comfortable enough to move within the community by walking, biking or any other number of means of transportation.

Q: What about the recent focus on distracted driving? How risky is it really?

A: When Secretary Ray LaHood initiated the Distracted Driving Summit, I found that my seat at the summit surrounded me with families who have lost loved ones to someone who was either texting or talking on the phone while driving. To me, that made the problem clear and very personal. We can look at the statistics about how risk increases when people take on these distractions, but I think it's really unacceptable for any life to be lost due to someone's carelessness caused by using a phone or texting.

Personally, I have a real concern with the model that parents are providing their children when they're in the drop off or pick up lines at school. Not only are parents setting a poor example by talking on the phone, texting, or otherwise being distracted, but I think they're also putting their own children, classmates and even other parents at risk by not being 100 percent focused when behind the wheel.

Q: Is there anything you would like to say to local SRTS organizers?

A: The biggest thing I'd like to say is thank you. A program like SRTS, although a national program, cannot succeed without grassroots support in every community. Local coordinators are critical to the overall success of the program. I would also like to encourage SRTS organizers to continue to learn from each other. Last week at the SRTS State Coordinators meeting, one thing that really struck me was the innovation and the richness of ideas that were presented from across the country. The more coordinators can share and tap into those ideas, the better the program with be.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add?

A: I'd like to add that we all must recognize that we are going to face some challenging times over the next year during the reauthorization as the nation tries to come to grips with where to focus it's resources on transportation. And perhaps even more importantly, figures out where those resources will come from. It's important for us all to continue to stay focused on adding value to school children and their communities. In my mind, nothing speaks louder than those successes in the SRTS program.

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Thank you, Mr. Toole, for taking the time to talk a bit more of your perspective on the SRTS and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Livability Initiative.

If there is an inspirational person/program in your community that you would like us to consider profiling in a future Q&A with column, e-mail Caroline Dickson, dickson@hsrc.unc.edu.