Women’s (Bike) History Month: Barbara McCann & Complete Streets

Filed Under: Advocacy & Policy, Bike Friendly Cities, Culture
Post By: jwilson
Posted On: March 24, 2013

Guest post by Stefanie Seskin, Deputy Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition

Complete Streets.

The phrase feels so natural and obvious now, almost as though it appeared in our vocabulary one day, a happy accident of words. But without the tireless efforts of Barbara McCann over the last decade, the entire Complete Streets movement is unlikely to have the success and widespread acceptance as it does today.

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Barbara McCann speaks with Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary for the Department of Transportation (Photo by Steve Davis)

McCann began her career at the fledgling CNN, where her journalistic skill was recognized and applauded. But 13 years in Atlanta also brought something else: an increasing awareness of how hostile our transportation system is for anyone not driving a car. Frustrated by her inability to simply ride a bike to work safely, Barbara became active in the local bicycle advocacy scene.

An opening at the Surface Transportation Policy Project – the Transportation for America of the late 1990s and early 2000s — brought her to Washington, D.C. While at STPP, she authored many reports, including the high-profile Mean Streets series on pedestrian safety and Driven to Spend, an early report on the impact of sprawl on household transportation expenses. She took on the role of Director of Information and Research at Smart Growth America, where she continued to work for bikeable, walkable communities. Her Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl was the first report to explain how the built environment is linked to physical activity and health. She co-authored Sprawl Costs and worked the media to get coverage of these topics across the country.

In 2003, Barbara joined forces with the America Bikes campaign, led by the fantastic Martha Roskowski. Martha recalls:

Barbara was providing communications and messaging for the America Bikes campaign to get good stuff for biking and walking into the next federal transportation bill. One our of asks of Congress was ‘routine accommodations,’ the idea that any project that used federal money should routinely accommodate people on foot and on bikes. We’d say ‘routine accommodations,’ and congressional staffers would respond ‘what’s that, cheap hotel rooms?’ We’d say, ‘It’s a lousy name, but a great concept.’ We weren’t finding much support. So we decided to come up with a new name. Barbara pulled together a meeting of smart marketing folks and we brainstormed over cheap pizza. Barbara led the process with her usual understated brilliance, and launched a powerful concept into the transportation world.

That concept? Oh, just the Complete Streets movement. By 2005, the initial collaborators had been joined by several more. Barbara recognized the potential power of this group, and they recognized her commitment and skill. McCann, now a consultant, was hired to run the newly formalized National Complete Streets Coalition, housed at Smart Growth America. Stephanie Potts, who worked for SGA, on the early years of the Coalition:

I joined the staff when the Coalition moved to its new home at Smart Growth America. At that time, Barbara still called herself the ‘Coordinator’ and pretended like she could still work on other projects. As the coalition membership expanded and the Complete Streets movement gained traction across the country, we both realized that we needed more help and hired the first full time staff person for the coalition. Barbara gave up trying to have a life outside Complete Streets and stopped correcting people when they called her the Executive Director — a title that was a much better fit for the amount of energy and passion she dedicated to her work. Through Barbara’s communications savvy and our strong partnerships, Complete Streets became a common-sense policy that local and state governments of all sizes and political leanings adopted. We even made it on to the cover of USA Today!

As that first full time staffer, I have been fortunate to work with Barbara and appreciate her leadership and deep belief that this movement was something that would change the country, that would bring equity and access to everyone. While her work has been lauded by many, she has never taken sole credit for what she’s created. She’s worked tirelessly to build partnerships and instill some spark of her Complete Streets fire in almost everyone she’s met. As a result, the movement has grown stronger and more powerful than if it had One Great Leader.

Last summer, Barbara recognized an opportunity to step back from the everyday management of a national organization and, in doing so, push the Complete Streets movement forward a huge step. Just a week ago, she turned in a manuscript for a book about Complete Streets to her editors at Island Press. The book explores the three (surprising) keys to the success of the Complete Streets movement and how transportation agencies across the country are making Complete Streets a matter of routine. It’s due out this fall.

On a final note, Barbara created a movement that is full of strong female role models, leaders, and contributors. In addition to Barbara and Stephanie, I’ve been honored to work with Christine, Krystle, Eryn, Catherine, and, now, Laura and Lily as colleagues at the Coalition. Our Steering Committee includes powerhouses such as Debra Alvarez of AARP; Stacey Williams of the American Planning Association; Roxanne Blackwell of the American Society of Landscape Architects; and Yolanda Savage-Narva of America Walks. We’ve also called on the skills of Caron Whitaker at the League of American Bicyclists, Kit Keller and Linda Tracy of the Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals; Coralette Hannon of AARP; and Martha Roskowski of the Green Lane Project. Women such as Kim Irwin in Indianapolis, Karen Nikolai in Hennepin County, Minn., and Cathy Costakis in Bozeman, Mont., are making real change in their communities. And there are so many more.

That’s one of the intrinsic beauties of Complete Streets: without a diversity of voices — without women — it would be another “special interest” and not the gamechanger that it is.

Learn more about Complete Streets at www.smartgrowthamerica.org/complete-streets.