Safe routes to school can help everyone in the community

Did you know that nearly half of all children used to walk or bike to school? That was back in 1969. Today, that number has plummeted down to about 13 percent. We're currently trapped in a vicious school-related traffic cycle:

  • The streets in Menlo Park are not safe for kids to get to school by walking or biking.
  • Because the streets are not safe, parents drive their kids to school. (Approximately 10 to 14 percent of our morning traffic is related to parents driving their kids to school.)
  • Because parents drive kids to school one by one, there is more traffic.
  • And because there is more traffic, the streets are even less safe.

Fortunately, a model exists to help counteract the decline: It's called Safe Routes to School. In Menlo Park, Safe Routes to School had its watershed moment on Tuesday, Feb. 7. Our City Council unanimously agreed to prioritize Safe Routes to Schools in its 2017 Work Plan.

Safe Routes to School helps kids use active transportation — biking, walking, scooters, etc. — to get to school. It encompasses 6 E's: Engineering, Enforcement, Education, Encouragement, Evaluation, and Equity. Each component is necessary: We need identified routes with proper biking and walking infrastructure; likewise, kids need to learn the rules of the road for them to be safe. A 2012 study of five states that invested in Safe Routes to School showed a 37 percent increase in kids using active transportation to get to school.

We need look no farther than our neighbor, Palo Alto, to see a thriving and effective Safe Routes to School program. In 2006, a formal community partnership was implemented by the city, the schools, and the parents. Since then, over 40 percent of Palo Alto high school students bike to school and 50 percent of middle school students do so. Each child who bikes to school is potentially one fewer car during morning rush hour, which means that Safe Routes to School can have a considerable impact on traffic congestion.

Just as Palo Alto's Safe Routes to School program could not exist without the three-pronged partnership of the city, its schools, and its parents, so too is Menlo Park's success dependent on getting everyone on board. We have the challenge of thinking across many cities (Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto, and more) and San Mateo County, four school districts (Las Lomitas, Menlo Park City, Ravenswood, Sequoia Union high school), and many private schools. Although the local situation is complex, the city of Menlo Park's prioritization makes it likely that other related jurisdictions will join in.

And the parents? Parents at individual schools can do only so much on their own. To ensure that we have a comprehensive solution that supports all of the kids in our community, a new advocacy group has formed: Parents for Safe Routes. Together with the Menlo Park Bicycle and Transportation commissions, Parents for Safe Routes successfully lobbied the City Council to make Safe Routes to School a priority. As parents, our job is to speak up for kids and to let our elected officials know that they have a mandate to make our streets safer.

Parents for Safe Routes is just getting started. The "win" at City Council on Feb. 7 was just the first step. We have early momentum, but the more of us there are speaking together, the more effective we can be. Please consider joining us.

Jen Wolosin