For decades, Palo Alto students have been at the head of the national pack when it comes to biking to school.
The city's Safe Routes to School program, a collaboration of city and school officials, educators and parent volunteers, has a rich tradition of creating commute maps, advocating for bike improvements and hosting "bike rodeos," educational events in which young students are taught how to navigate around obstacles, cross intersections and exit driveways, among other biking basics.
The response has been positive. According to district bike surveys, the bike rate at the Gunn and Palo Alto high schools was 10% and 12%, respectively, in 2002. By 2012, the rates moved up to 41% and 39%, respectively. And in 2019, Gunn had a 50% rate, while Paly had 52%.
Now, however, the program is facing some headwinds. The pandemic has erased some of the city's recent gains and, for the first time in many years, Palo Alto is now seeing the share of student bicyclists dropping, according to a report that was presented to the City Council on Monday, April 24. In 2021, the district's bike counts showed a 45% rate in Gunn and 42% at Paly.
The trend isn't limited to high schools. City surveys also showed declining bike counts in all three of the city's middle schools between 2019 and 2021. Greene Middle School students led the way in 2021 with a bike parking rate of 61%, which was a drop from 67% in 2019. At Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School, the decrease was more precipitous, with the bike parking percentage falling from 70% to 53%. At Fletcher Middle School, there was a small decrease from 43% to 40% over the two-year period.
Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi noted that local numbers are still high by national standards. Nationally, the bike rate is only about 2%, he said.
Even so, program coordinators and council members expressed concern this week that the program has lost some of its former luster. A report from staff noted that elementary school parents in 2021 were driving at the same rate as in 2016, erasing the progress made since the peak year of 2019.
"Most concerning, driving numbers in middle and high school were higher in 2021 than in 2016," the report stated.
Jose Palma, coordinator of Safe Routes to School, attributed the recent drop to the pandemic, as well as a reduction of bussing and shuttle services (the city discontinued its free shuttle program in 2020). Some families developed a driving habit during the pandemic out of belief that this reduces their children's exposure to COVID-19, he said. And school officials and volunteers had to cut back on in-person events for young students.
Other contributing factors, he said, include a decline in program volunteers, who have been key to the program's outreach efforts in middle and high schools. The school district's decision to limit campus access during the pandemic also may have played a role, Palma said.
"Due to the pandemic, PAUSD had to limit access points to reduce cohort mixing and COVID exposure. Doing so changed how families planned the routes to and from schools," he said.
To reverse the trend, Safe Routes to School is now advancing a five-year plan with more than 40 strategies to encourage biking. This includes supporting the city's effort to improve infrastructure improvements and expand the local bike work; building a network of skilled volunteers and advocates; supporting events like Walk and Roll Week and Bike to Work Day; developing Spanish and Chinese language materials to encourage broader participation in Safe Routes to School; and supporting free services like bike repairs and distribution of bike lights and helmets to under-resourced students.
Some council members and students believe the program should also do more to encourage biking among the district's older students. Phela Durosinmi, a Paly senior, said that since he had graduated from middle school, he's heard virtually no discussion of bike safety.
"I think simply increasing presence and having more lessons and more education in the upper levels of classes will bring a lot more awareness to biking and really encourage students to bike," Durosinmi said. "For us, the only time we ever hear mention of biking to school is once a year, when there's a survey taking place asking students how they get to school."
Council member Greg Tanaka, an avid bicyclist with two children at Paly, suggested that the city's pro-biking message is getting weaker at the high school level. His children used to be really excited about biking when they were in middle school and elementary school. Now, the "vibe" at Paly has shifted such that some people think biking is no longer cool.
He suggested that the city consider some programs at high schools to encourage biking or even promote a competition between schools.
"There has to be some change in the perception of the coolness factor," Tanaka said.
Council member Ed Lauing also supported relying on peer pressure and a sense of competition, particularly at the middle school level, to encourage children to bike to school. Others supported doing more to encourage traffic safety. Council member Vicki Veenker called for taking a closer look at construction sites along school corridors to make sure that heavy equipment isn't being moved in and out of the road during commute hours. Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims suggested a greater focus on police enforcement of driving violations during times when children are biking to and from school.
"What can we do to educate drivers to slow down and follow the rules of the road?" Lythcott-Haims asked. "These are children, for goodness sake, just trying to get to school."
For the most part, however, council members were optimistic about the program regaining its momentum after the pandemic lull. Council member Pat Burt alluded to a "downward spiral" that the city suffered 30 years ago, when the share of students getting driven to school was so high that roads were congested and the conditions made biking unsafe, further perpetuating the driving trend.
"It just took year after year of steady progress to reverse that trend. I think we have the foundation that we're not in jeopardy of having a permanent reversal, but I sure do look forward to us getting back to that incredible path of 25 years of incredible progress," Burt said.