A group of residents from Menlo Park, Atheron, Redwood City, San Carlos, Sunnyvale, and East Palo Alto gathered at Menlo College in Atherton on Sunday afternoon to learn lessons from Palo Alto’s successful Safe Routes to School program.
Palo Alto’s program is seen by many as a model that could be adpated to other communities wishing to raise more active, healthier, and independent children, and to reduce traffic congestion and safety problems associated with so many parents driving their children to school.
According to the National Safe Routes to School Partnership, 50% of American school children walked or biked to school 40 years ago, but fewer than 15% do so today. As a result, an estimated 20 – 30% of morning peak period vehicle traffic is generated by parents driving their children to school, and vehicle crashes are the #1 cause of death and major injury for children.
Penny Ellson, who co-chairs the Palo Alto Council of Parent Teacher Association’s (PTA) Traffic Safety Committee, gave a presentation describing how Palo Alto has been able to reverse these national trends over the past 15 years.
The Palo Alto Unified School District includes 12 elementary schools, 3 middle schools, and 2 high schools. The percent of PAUSD elementary school children walking, biking, or skating to school rose from 29% in 1994 to to 44% in 2009. A total of 55% of elementary school children get to school using some alternative mode of transportation, which includes carpooling and transit.
Palo Alto middle and high school students rely more heavily on bicycling than walking, because on average, they must travel farther to get to school than elementary school students. The percent of PAUSD middle school children who bike to school increased from 15 – 25% in 2000 to 35 – 60% in 2011 (the variation is due to the difference in the schools’ locations and size of attendance boundaries). The percent of PAUSD high school students who bike to school increased from 10 – 15% in 1999 to 35 – 40% in 2011.
Parents and teachers began organizing in the mid-1990s to make a change. At first, the effort was focused on teaching bicycle and pedestrian traffic safety skills at a few elementary schools. But they soon began working with the City of Palo Alto on traffic engineering projects and with the Palo Alto Unified School District on facility improvement projects that affected the safety of children who were walking or biking to school.
In the early 2000s, the relationships developed in working collaboratively with the city and the school district were formalzed in a Safe Routes to School Partnership that helps make decisions through two committees that meet monthly. The first is the City/School Traffic Safety Committee, whose members include representatives from the school district, the city’s Police Department, the city’s Transportation Division, and the PTAs. The second is the City/School Liaison Committee, whose members include high-level city and PAUSD staff, and representatives from the Board of Education, City Council, and PTA.
These committees allow safety concerns to be discussed by everyone involved on an on-going basis so that they can be quickly addressed and to ensure that decisions involving infrastructure or facilities changes continue to improve safety and the availability of alternative modes of transportation.
The Palo Alto Safe Routes to School Partnership uses a comprehensive approach adopted by many bicycle and pedestrian advocacy organizations known as “The Five E’s”:
- Education – Teaching children about the range of transportation choices, instructing them in important lifelong safety skills, and launching driver safety campaigns.
- Engineering – Creating operational and physical improvements to the infrastructure surrounding schools, reducing speeds, and establishing safer crosswalks and pathways.
- Encouragement – Using events and activities to promote walking and bicycling.
- Enforcement – Partnering with local law enforcement to ensure drivers obey traffic laws, and initiating community enforcement such as crossing guard programs.
- Evaluation – Monitoring and researching results and trends through collected data.
The residents who gathered at Menlo College were interested in learning how to apply the Palo Alto experience in their own communities. Kathy Schrenk co-founded the Atherton Bike Coalition to help make it easier for children to walk and bike to school in Atherton and Menlo Park. She explained that in Atherton, the lack of sidewalks makes walking safely a challenge. “We walk with the kids in small groups. If there were sidewalks, it would be so much easier to keep them safe when we’re walking to school,” she said.