Riding Out the Storm

I’m honored that the Marin County newspaper the Pacific Sun published a cover story this week on my recovery from leukemia and my environmental and health career since the 90’s — improving walking and bicycling in Marin and nationwide. You can read it online or below.  Special thanks to the author Rick Polito, the photographer Robert Vente, and the Sun’s Contributing Editor Jason Walsh.


Pacific Sun Feature Story: Riding out the storm

Safe Routes to School founding director Deb Hubsmith talks balancing career and health

by Rick Polito

Deb Hubsmith_PacSun_sitting_6-27-14It would be easy to take Marin’s network of bike routes, paths and tunnels for granted and assume that the bike-centric county that invented mountain biking would naturally have a world-class infrastructure for the two-wheeled throngs towing their kids and groceries home in Burley trailers.

It would be easy to miss the fight that turned Marin into a model for the nation.

But even then it’d be hard to miss the energy that Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) founder Deb Hubsmith radiates through every foot of bike path in that model. Anybody who has met the 45-year-old bike advocate knows that no-blink energy. There are power plants with lower wattage. She was leading or in the mix on every bike project even before the MCBC was founded in 1998.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to think of what she has gone through in the last eight months, nearly every day bed-bound, struggling with acute myeloid leukemia, isolated from the world while her immune system crawled back after a bone marrow transplant. The biopsy last month showed her cancer-free, but one could easily expect to see a shadow of that former force of will who stood up at city council and community meetings across the county, a softer, more faint voice.

You could expect that until you talk to her. She’s the same Deb Hubsmith, with the same plans, dreams and, of course, energy. We talked to her last month about her own journey through cancer and now recovery and the journeys she’s taken by bike, stitching together the network Marin cyclists might take for granted if they didn’t know the woman and the stories behind it.


What was it like when you learned you had cancer?

It was a huge shock. The diagnosis came on Oct. 17, 2013. I had just been in Washington, D.C. two weeks before, making speeches and organizing the first “Everybody Walk” summit. My symptoms came on really quickly and I ended up going to the Kaiser Permanente hospital and getting a complete blood count test. I was actually supposed to jump on a plane that very day to go to Pennsylvania for a meeting about reversing childhood obesity and I didn’t get on the plane. That saved my life. I ended up in the emergency room instead. I was admitted to the hospital immediately and they started chemotherapy two days later. I ended up living at Kaiser Permanente for 103 days while I went through three rounds of chemotherapy. The hardest was between Christmas and New Years when I wound up in the intensive care unit with pneumonia, a GI (gastrointestinal) tract infection and a high heart rate. My white blood cell count dropped to zero. I was told that I needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. Kaiser has a relationship with Stanford Hospital so I came down to Stanford and the doctors said that I had a greater than 50 percent chance of living if I got the bone marrow transplant.

What was the next step?

They found me an unrelated donor—who was a 10-out-of-10 tissue-type match. All I know is that he is an extremely generous 32-year-old male from Europe and his bone marrow is saving my life. My new bone marrow is actually the bone marrow of my donor and my blood type is transferring from B+ to O+. I’m taking on the new immune system of the donor. It’s a really huge procedure. I had a lot of pain when I was in the hospital but now I’m doing really well. I had to live down in the Stanford area for a few months. I am back in Marin and June 27 was day 100 after the bone marrow transplant, which is the magic day for BMT patients because once you make it to day 100, you have a really good chance of survival.

What can people learn from your experience?

My life was saved because of this donor. It’s actually easy to become a bone marrow donor and only 70 percent of the people find matches, so I encourage everybody to join www.bethematch.org to get their name in the national bone marrow registry. I’m alive today because of the generosity of others and I’ve documented my journey of healing from AML (acute myeloid leukemia) at a website (www.lovehealingdeb.com) that’s been viewed by people in more than 51 countries. It’s been quite a journey and I am so grateful for all the help that’s been given to me.

What have you learned about yourself?

I learned that it’s critical to have balance in my life. My career had taken over all my waking hours. I was working about 80 hours a week and traveling on a plane at least once a month. I did all of this because of my urgency to save the world and in the process, I didn’t take care of myself. I learned that it’s critically important to have a balance. I learned that the truly meaningful aspects of life are about connecting with others. I’ve been blown away by how generous people have been. More than 300 people have donated to my medical funds and people all over the world have said they’ve been praying for me. Because chemotherapy knocked out my immune system, I basically had to live in isolation for the last eight months. I’ve used Facebook and my website, www.lovehealingdeb.com, to communicate. I’ve become more vulnerable going through this and people say that this vulnerability is inspiring to them. I can’t change the world without supporting my own emotional, spiritual and health needs.

How are you going to keep centered?

I am taking all of 2014 off from work to heal and when I return in 2015, I’m hoping to go back to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership (www.saferoutespartnership.org) as a part-time president. I used to try to do it all and now I know that it’s critical to nurture many leaders. I want to be a leader of a new paradigm for improving health for people and the planet from a place that supports collaboration, distributed leadership and raising consciousness worldwide. I’ll be taking more walks, going to more dances, meditating more often and going through the next level for yoga teacher training. That union between mind and body is something that’s truly important and will be healing throughout my whole life. I’m planning on limiting my work travel to stay off airplanes as much as possible and enjoy more time for myself.


What brought you to Marin?

I was born in New York City but I started talking about moving to California when I was nine. There was something about California that just simply pulled me out here. I moved here in 1992 just after I graduated from college with a degree in environmental science and resource management, and I landed here in Marin. I thought it would be a location that would be ripe for environmental innovations.

Deb Hubsmith w Umbrella Bike_6-27-14How did environmental innovations turn to bicycle advocacy?

In college, I started out studying civil engineering and by the time I got to my junior year, I realized I didn’t really want to build roads and bridges. It was important to me to do what we could to save the environment. In ’89 I changed majors. When I moved here, I wanted to work for an environmental organization and, as I talked to different groups, people kept telling me that Marin’s major environmental problem was traffic. In 1992, that was something that was totally new to me because back east, we were dealing with toxic waste sites and factory pollution. I was doing work for the Green City Project in San Francisco and driving my car every day when the director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition told me I wasn’t a real environmentalist because I was driving my car everywhere. I got in a car accident in 1996 that left my car totaled and I decided that it was time to start to walk the talk so I didn’t get another car. I started bicycling, walking and taking public transit. It was so hard to get around that I ended up becoming an advocate for bicycling.

What did the bike infrastructure look like in the mid-1990s?

There were a lot of disconnected pathways and the culture wasn’t yet supporting bicycling in Marin County, but there was clearly the potential for bicycling to be something great. There were discussions that were going on in Marin at that time in 1997, 1998 about bringing forward a sales tax for transportation to make improvements, and I ended up going to those meetings with Wendi Kallins, who is the person who I founded Safe Routes to School in Marin County with. We started having conversations after those meetings about what we really needed to do in Marin, and that was improving transportation, creating more walking and bicycling, and really involving kids and families.

What is the difference between 2014 and when you started the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (www.marinbike.org)?

At that time, the infrastructure in Marin was very patchwork. It was hard to encourage bicycling. There was also a lack of consciousness. When I gave up my car in 1996 and I started bicycling everywhere, people used to think that was completely unbelievable. They didn’t understand why I would want to live without a car.

What does that consciousness look like now?

The culture in Marin County has shifted dramatically more in favor of bicycling and walking due to concerns about health, obesity, global warming and also traffic congestion. When we started Safe Routes in Mill Valley in 2000, kids who arrived at school by bike were confronted by other kids wanting to know what was wrong with their car. Today, there are hundreds of bikes that are parked at the new Middle Valley School every day. If you sit in Fairfax on Center Boulevard at any time of the day, you’ll see ordinary people just bicycling, not only for recreation—people in street clothes, doing errands, sometimes with kids in tow. There has been a huge attitude shift.

What’s the big picture like for infrastructure now?

The county has been taking bike counts at 12 locations since 1999 to measure how many more people are bicycling, and there’s been a 159 percent increase on weekends and a 172 percent increase on weekdays for bicycling since 1999. We now have 60 miles of separated pathways, and 50 miles of bike lanes. The MCBC worked with elected officials to bring in more than a $140 million to support bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure since 1998. The Cal Park Hill Tunnel connects San Rafael and Larkspur. We have the Lincoln Hill Pathway from the San Rafael Transit Center up to Terra Linda. The Transportation Authority of Marin and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission just allocated $20 million to build phase two of the Central Marin Ferry Connection, a bridge over Corte Madera Creek to connect with Redwood Highway. That project was originally planned to be a huge highway-widening project and instead it turned into a bicycle project and a train project. That in and of itself shows how attitudes have changed in Marin County. We have racks on buses, bike parking at transit centers, and we have the SMART train and pathway that was approved by voters back in 2008.

Obviously, MCBC played a huge role, but what other factors and people made a difference?

I want to recognize Patrick Seidler, the president of Wilderness Trail Bikes and Transportation Alternatives Marin, who’s been working to make Marin a model bicycle community for the nation for decades. I have to recognize Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who’s been the biggest local, political champion for bicycling. He’s always seen the connection between bicycling, walking and public health and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The late Charles McGlashan was extremely supportive as well. I worked really closely with both Steve Kinsey and Charles McGlashan on getting the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) adopted by Congress, which brought $25 million to Marin County to demonstrate how bicycling and walking could help to solve health and environmental problems. Former Mayor Al Boro of San Rafael was a key supporter with the old guard and with projects like SMART and the Lincoln Hill Pathway. I worked with late Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar on Federal Transportation Bill Safety provisions that allocated $1.1 billion to Safe Routes to School nationwide and created the federal Safe Routes to School program and the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program, which focused on four communities including Marin County. Of course there were many more elected officials and leaders who played key roles, and planners and engineers who built the projects.

What made all of that happen?

A lot of it was about tenacity and continuing to show up. Many people get frustrated when they’re trying to make social change happen and if it doesn’t take place within a year or two, they give up. With the MCBC, I went to all the community meetings and we showed elected officials why this makes a difference to everyday people in terms of quality of life. People want to live in places where their kids can walk and bike to school. It’s really a symbol of how healthy and safe your community is. Then, Al Gore came out with An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 and really woke people up to global warming. People in Marin realized they needed to get out of their cars and walk the walk.

What one bike infrastructure link has had the most impact?

The Cal Park Hill Tunnel is the biggest and most profound piece of infrastructure that’s been built in Marin to date. It connects San Rafael with the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. A bike trip that used to take 20 minutes now takes a little bit more than five minutes. It’s really a symbol of what’s possible.

What’s on your wish list now?

The Alto Tunnel has always been the piece of infrastructure that Marin County Bicycle Coalition members have said is most important to them. The Camino Alto grade is the biggest barrier for getting from southern Marin to central Marin.

What sort of impact are you seeing from Safe Routes to School?

When the program started in 2000, about 21 percent of kids walked or biked to school at the nine schools that were part of our federal pilot program. Now, Safe Routes to School is in more than 50 schools in Marin and there’s an average of 50 percent of kids that are taking a green way to school. There was a 2011 study that was done by the Transportation Authority in Marin that showed a 14 percent reduction in cars on average at all schools.

What’s the long-term impact?

Right now Safe Routes to School is in more than 15,000 schools nationwide. It’s safer for kids to walk and bike and safer for everybody because there’s new infrastructure. There are obvious health benefits. Active kids do better in school, so Safe Routes to School and activity out of school helps our kids learn and thrive. It’s changing the habits for an entire generation. Marin County was the national pilot for Safe Routes to School and we’ve influenced a profound movement nationwide.

It’s been 16 years since the MCBC was founded. What will it be like to bike in Marin in 16 years?

Every school will have routes to the school that are safe. We’ll have the North-South Greenway completed and we’ll be able to bike and walk on safe and separate facilities from the Golden Gate Bridge to Santa Rosa. The East-West Greenway will be completed from Fairfax to the SMART station in San Rafael. The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge will be opened for bikes on the upper deck. West Marin will be safe for bicycling. There’ll be less traffic, less greenhouse gas emissions and more joy. In a word, it will be biketopia.

Hop on a tandem bicycle with Rick at letters@pacificsun.com.

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