Growing numbers are biking, walking to school

'Walk and Roll' week features donkeys and a 'human-powered minivan'

The number of Palo Alto students who bicycle or walk to school has risen steadily in the past decade, according to the PTA Council Traffic Safety Committee.

About 54 percent of elementary school kids now get to school by walking, bicycling or other alternative modes of transportation, compared to far fewer 10 years ago.

In high schools, the numbers are tracked by counts of bicycles in the bike racks.

Gunn's count this month was 633 (33 percent of students), up from 180 (11 percent) in 1999.

At Palo Alto High, this year's count was 582 (32 percent of students) up from 220 (15 percent) a decade ago. Advocates attribute the increase to education, better safety engineering, police enforcement of safety rules and encouragement from adults.

Next week, schools will observe "Walk and Roll" celebrations at campuses across the city.

At Barron Park Elementary, families will walk to school with the well-known donkeys, Pericles and Miner 49er, who live next to the neighborhood's Bol Park.

Escondido Elementary School dad Stefan Rosner will pedal with two of his kids to school in his unusual "human-powered minivan," a tandem bicycle with a child's seat.

"Give your child an out-of-car experience," school board member Melissa Baten Caswell said this week. "Enjoy it. Use this time to teach your child safety skills and model a healthy, active lifestyle."

A generation of students now has gone through bicycle-safety education, said Penny Ellson, chair of the PTA Council Traffic Safety Committee.

"It's exciting because the kids who have been through the whole program now are hitting the high schools. These kids get it. They have the skills and understand the importance of doing this," she said.

Behind the "Walk and Roll" celebrations are a cadre of parents deadly serious about making local streets friendlier to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Ellson, formerly in teaching and marketing communications, got involved even before her daughter reached elementary school, after her husband was hit twice by cars while bicycling on school routes.

"We are both walking, bicycling people, big believers in people moving around the community on their feet. We said, 'We've got to fix this.'"

Ellson got involved in efforts to re-stripe the intersection of East Charleston Road and Nelson Drive, which she said have been successful.

"You don't see drivers blowing through like they used to. It's brought traffic down to the posted speed limit. When the striping changes as you approach an intersection, it triggers drivers to pay attention."

As chair of the PTA traffic group, Ellson is part of Safe Routes to School, a partnership among the city, the school district and the PTA, which works with police and city planners to improve safety.

"Every time there's a crash on a school route the team gets together and says, 'What happened? Was the cyclist at fault? Is this an educational opportunity for the community? Does the road need to be re-engineered here? Does the signal not operate optimally?'

"We also talk to the police and ask if we have a speeding problem in the area.

"The important thing is to help people understand what they need to do right to get there safely," she said.

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Like this comment
Posted by JLS Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 3, 2009 at 12:51 pm

The JLS bike cages are full to capacity and this is after increasing the size of the bike cages by 70 bike spaces this spring.

As the schools increase in size we need to find not only more classroom space, but more bike parking space and car parking space for the extra teachers. We have lost green lawn space to more portables at the front of the school and I noticed 6th graders (I presume) running around these portables playing games at brunch time. Our schools are getting so overcrowded it is no joke.

When taking into account the numbers of kids riding/walking to school, we must remember that the size of the schools are growing so it is inevitable that there are increases in all forms of ways to get to school. Not only are there more bikers and walkers from last year, there are more arriving by car too because we have more students than last year. JLS is now the largest of the 3 middle schools according to 11th day count.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm

This is such a healthy and positive trend. My boys all bike to school and and I'm thankful to say that the high schooler among them isn't particularly interested in ever getting a car. As a parent I'm delighted with the fitness, frugality and self-reliance that this engenders. The community should do what it can to encourage biking and to keep the kids safe while they bike..

Like this comment
Posted by Another JLS parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I have seen no evidence of the "Safe Routes to Schools" initiative in our neighborhood (El Carmelo - JLS). The sidewalks are still blocked by cars parked illegally, and trash cans left by the recycling trucks. There is absolutely no sign of police enforcement here.

I worry every day about my child walking the short distance to school, knowing they have to veer into the street many times along the way.

Like this comment
Posted by dz
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Oct 3, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Crossing El Camino provents me allowing my kids riding bikes to school. You really don't know who is driving on it.

Like this comment
Posted by Native
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Oct 3, 2009 at 11:08 pm

In the 80s, everyone walked or biked to school. I rode my bike from Loma Verde to Paly, quite a distance. But we had far more free time back then (and no game systems, computers, cell phones to distract). Each extra minute of sleep is important for teenagers with the school workload and distractions now. We had about seven additional elementary schools back then (Crescent Park, Ortega, DeAnza, Van Auken, Greendell, and two others) so elementary children didn't have to cross streets such as El Camino, Embarcadero, Oregon Expressway.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 4, 2009 at 8:19 am

I have my third child at Paly at present and we live just off Loma Verde near Greer. All 3 of them have ridden their bikes to school the majority of the time. On the few days I have driven them (usually due to having to take large projects to school) I have to leave earlier than they would if they took their bikes. The tail back to turning left on Churchill and the possibility of being stopped by trains means I want to give myself an earlier start to beat the traffic. Although they appreciate the ride, they do not appreciate the fact that I make them leave a few minutes earlier.

Likewise, if I have to pick them up for similar reasons, I won't arrive til 3.15 because I don't want to get caught in traffic.

At one stage, one of my kids was on crutches and I did drive regularly on and off the campus every day. It was miserable for me as a driver getting caught in the traffic. Nowadays, I drop off on a sidestreet and they have to carry whatever it is (unless it really is large and it needs my help to get to the classroom).

Any healthy child should be able to ride their bike from south Palo Alto to either Paly or Gunn and be more fit and more awake as a result. It probably takes less time than being driven.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent of Biders
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 4, 2009 at 1:58 pm

I just came back from the bike store where I got my daughter's bike fixed after it was vandalized at Paly. She could not find room in the bike enclosure so had to leave it out on other bike racks. This is the third bike we have had stolen or vandalized at Paly. If the community wants to have kids bike to school then the schools' need better security systems.

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Parent of Bikers,
Have you reported this vandalism to the school? I agree that theft, vandalism and accidental damage due to substandard racks are a problem at the high schools, but the school administration won't know how much of a problem it is unless every incident is reported. Don't assume that they know what is going on.

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Posted by Rob
a resident of Woodside
on Oct 5, 2009 at 7:28 am

This is good. A few years back I noticed parents would pick up their older teens from everywhere. I even supervised a few HS graduates, who had their parents pick them up from work. When I was that age it would be a major embarassment for a parent to pick you up, as it basicly meant you were still a child. These kids need independence, or else the whole government controlled society thing will become more of a reality.

Like this comment
Posted by KF
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 5, 2009 at 9:26 am

These numbers are dramatic considering a recent article in the NY Times that only 13% of kids walk or bike to school as compared to 41% in 1969. (Web Link)

Everyone who enjoys the decreased congestion, the cleaner air, and the healthier kids should give a big thank you to all of the Traffic Safety Representatives at all of the schools. And especially Penny, Cathy Durham, Richard Swent and all of the parents who work tirelessly to make this happen. It is not an accident, it took hard work over the years, to convince kids and parents that biking to school could work.

I thank all the parents, bike advocates, and city partners who made this happen for our kids.

Like this comment
Posted by Penny Ellson
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 5, 2009 at 2:31 pm

There's a lot to respond to here.

JLS racks are full again after adding 70 parking spaces last year. Yes. That is true. Vice Principal Gerry Larvey at JLS already is working proactively with PAUSD facilities staff and the PTA to get more racks in place for our growing numbers of bicyclists. What a good problem to have to solve!

To the commenter that said there has been no police presence between JLS and El Carmelo. I can only respond with the facts. The PAPD has a dedicated Traffic Safety Team that gives special attention to trouble spots on school routes throughout the city, including this area. They also provide crossing guards at many critical school crossings in that area.

El Carmelo had their drop-off/pick-up circulation redesigned (about 2 years ago) for better efficiency and safety by a city traffic engineer who collaborated with former EC Principal Garcia and the PTA. We heard from parents there that they felt it was a big improvement.

My observation is that most of the traffic hazards to children on school routes in this area in the morning are created by PARENTS driving their kids to school. That's a problem we parents can solve. Parents who bike with their kids to school in elementary school start their day with good exercise AND they get to teach their children how to be safe on the streets. We should make sure our children practise safety skills with the same diligence we practise math facts. I encourage all of us to unstrap our kids from the backseats of our cars to walk and bike with them. Give your child an out of car learning experience!

As for the Paly problem...a few things are going on at once. I want to start by saying that all thefts should be reported to both the PAPD AND Paly Administration so they are aware that the problem needs more attention. (Also, if your bike isn't licensed, please get a license from the PAPD. It will help them identify your bike and return it to you in case of theft. Many of our site PTAs do on-site bike licensing events with the PAPD. Look for these! )

That said, Paly added bike parking spaces last year and both Paly and Gunn are incorporating planning for bike circulation and parking in their site planning as the campuses are expanded. Theft, safety and convenience for bicyclists are key considerations in this planning process.

Positive change is an ongoing process. We have several more ongoing projects with the city and PAUSD---too much to recount here. Parents and students can help by providing useful information about incidents like these that will inform the planning process. It helps to know WHERE, WHEN, and HOW the thefts and vandalism occur.

Thanks to every member of our community who helps the City of Palo Alto, PTA and PAUSD in our Safe Routes to School efforts! You are part of the solution.

Like this comment
Posted by terryg
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 5, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Penny, thanks for your on-going commitment to getting us all out of our cars and to school safely.

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Posted by mimis
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 14, 2009 at 4:31 pm

My son has had two locked bikes stolen from the JLS bike cages in the past two weeks. I've heard similar stories from other parents. Bike theft is epidemic at Palo Alto schools; can't something be done to prevent this? Should we be using a different type of lock? Can cameras be installed to monitor the bike cages?

Like this comment
Posted by Sarah
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2009 at 4:47 pm

What kind of lock are you using? Some locks are much better than others. Remember that thieves prey on expensive bikes with cheap locks. You can improve your chances by changing either side of that equation.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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