Did you know that from 1969 to 2001, the percentage of students walking and bicycling to school declined dramatically from 41 percent to 13 percent?
Are you aware that during the same period the percentage of children being driven or driving themselves to school nearly tripled, from 20 percent to 55 percent? ( If you live near a school, these figures are no surprise. You have trouble getting out of your garage and moving to your destination when school starts and ends).
These changes in the way kids get to school have had a significant impact on traffic congestion and safety, as well as on children’s health. A large majority of American children no longer get much needed physical activity during their trips to or from school. This change has contributed to the rise in childhood obesity. Now, nearly one in three young people in the United States — a total of 23 million children and teenagers — are either obese or overweight. Meanwhile, family vehicles congregate around school during arrival and dismissal times, causing traffic congestion and emitting pollutants and greenhouse gases.
We live about a quarter mile from our elementary and high school. Middle school is about a mile away. We bought our house in 1969 because our children could walk to school and they did. But most of my neighbors now drive their children to and from school.
Adrienne Leigh bought a home in Hillsborough close to her neighborhood school but was shocked to find there were no sidewalks. Where there were suitable walking paths, parents had parked their cars on them. She joined a crusade to provide safe walks for schools. She attended many meetings to encourage cities and transportation agencies to advocate for the nation’s first Safe Routes to School legislation authored by a California assemblyman. This was in 1999. Caltrans was reluctant then (but not now) to part with any highway money to help fund new sidewalks, bike and pedestrian paths, and intersection improvements. But Leigh and moms throughout California were persistent and gathered enough signatures and local government support to convince then governor Pete Wilson to sign this historic legislation (AB 1475-Soto).
Today, Safe Routes to School is part of the federal transportation bill. Successive state legislation has been enacted without much opposition. But its impact on cities in San Mateo County has been marginal. Marin and Alameda counties have Safe Routes to School coordinators and have secured millions of dollars for improvements. While money has been allocated in the county for new bicycle lanes and educational programs, the majority of parents still drive their children to school because of safety issues. The safety of children walking to school alone is the main concern. That is why some schools have organized walking buses, where volunteer parents walk groups of children to school. Despite Leigh’s great work on the state level, her neighborhood school has not seen much improvement since 1999. I walk by South School during morning dropoff. Line after line of SUVs clog the narrow paths. Your only choice is to walk in the street and dodge cars.
It’s unfortunate that someone has to be killed to attract attention for the need for safer school and bicycle crossings. The latest tragic accident highlights the need to complete work on a bicycle/pedestrian overpass at Hillsdale Boulevard and Highway 101. The city of San Mateo has received design money for the project and now is working with Caltrans for an approved fix. But it’s expensive. A similar project in Belmont, at Highway 101 and Ralston Avenue, is at long last about to become a reality. Federal stimulus funds are providing the last batch of dollars necessary to complete the 20-year-old project.
We can’t wait that long to make a safe connection on Hillsdale Boulevard. People who live and work east or west of Highway 101 make daily auto trips across Hillsdale Boulevard, when many could easily walk or bike to their destination. But it is a scary walk or ride now as you cross paths (four times) with autos entering or exiting the highway. Traffic lights (there is one) are not the answer for the several intersections because they will back up traffic on the freeway. Several bicycle activists have stated publicly that an overpass on Hillsdale/101 is a waste of money. They would prefer to see money spent on other improvements, ones that would benefit the expert cyclist. That’s a very selfish attitude. We need safer connections between east and west to encourage more people to walk and bike instead of driving, as well as increasing the number of safe bike routes for all riders.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.