“I like how this plant feels,” said Devynn Meleg, 7, as she paused to investigate a silver bush during her morning walk. “It feels so weird!” Her mother Brett, watching with a smile, wore a bright yellow vest with reflective strips and a “Safe Routes to School” logo printed on its front. Along their walk, they pointed out spiders spinning webs, a cat sitting in a window and a yard where chickens used to live.
The two had set off from their home around 8 a.m. for Laurel Elementary in Oakland’s Dimond district, forming their own “walking school bus”—that’s a phrase being promoted by the Alameda County Transportation Commission, which administers the local chapter of the National Safe Routes to School program.
Safe Routes to School encourages students and parents to walk or bike to school to promote health, build a sense of community and reduce road congestion—especially at school drop-off sites, where crowding can be dangerous. Now in its sixth year in Alameda County, the program fields applications from schools that wish to participate and then organizes area walking groups or bike processions with parent leaders; coordinates educational events throughout the year; and performs “walk audits” to identify popular routes to campus while noting hazardous high-traffic areas that need improvements like new crosswalks or light signals.
The program has been implemented in nearly a third of Alameda County’s 344 schools, including 20 in Oakland, and on Oct. 3 will celebrate International Walk or Roll to School Day. The event, aimed at upping participation and kicking off walking school buses for schools new to the program, is modeled after the first “National Walk Our Children to School Day” held in Chicago in 1997. In 2000, collaboration between the U.S., U.K. and Canada made it an international event.
“It’s just a big celebration and encouragement,” said Alameda County’s Safe Routes to School director Nora Cody, who also heads the program’s Oakland task force. She said she hopes 50,000 students among the 86 schools currently registered will be walking or rolling, on bikes, skateboards, scooters or in carpools, to school that Wednesday morning. “This is something to aim for throughout the year,” Cody said.
When they arrive at school on Oct. 3, according to the Walk or Roll to School Day plans, all students will be greeted with Safe Routes mood pencils, which magically change colors while they are they being used, and snacks. Charts titled “How did you get to school today?” will prompt students to place a dot by a sneaker, scooter, skateboard, bicycle, bus, car or carpool icon to record the mode of transportation they used that day. Schools will tally the numbers and report them back to Cody to see who can claim bragging rights for having the most students who did not come in a single occupancy vehicle.
Safe Routes originally targeted grades K-8, but is expanding this year to include high schools. “In terms of influencing and changing their behavior, it’s much more peer-to-peer,” Cody said of high school students. “The parent influence is still very much there and still important, but we knew this needed to be an approach that engages the young people.”
Many teenagers are still being driven to school because high schools serve larger areas, with students often commuting from several miles away—making walking or biking a challenge. Teens are also excited about driving themselves, but Cody said taking the bus can give them freedom and a chance to gain “great skills finding their way around the city.” Safe Routes’ most successful high school slogan has been “Set yourself free with your own two feet,” which is about “being independent and making your own decisions,” Cody said.
Oakland High was part of the pilot high school program last year. Oakland Tech will participate in the Walk and Roll event for the first time; student members of the service club, Build On, will help spread the word to their peers and oversee the Walk and Roll festivities.
Back at Laurel Elementary, parent Joanna Katz has committed to leading a walking school bus on Monday mornings with her son, Owen. “I just thought this was a nice way to show support of the school,” she said.
She mentioned that challenges of starting the program include engaging parents and grandparents who may wish to participate but don’t speak English, as well as families who live farther away from the school. “It would just take a lot more forethought and organization on their part and comfort to feel like they could drop their kids off with a friend that’s nearby,” Katz said.
Cody recognized that street violence can also be problematic in certain Oakland neighborhoods. In those cases, Safe Routes coordinators recruit multiple parents to lead a single walking or rolling group. Cody said they also consult and collaborate with the Oakland Police Department on how to make routes to school safer. “But I do know they are very short-staffed,” she said.
Devynn’s mother, Brett Meleg, added that “people don’t feel safe” walking or riding bicycles in her neighborhood near Laurel Elementary, due mostly to unsafe driving and a lack of infrastructure. “There is not a lot of green space and not a lot of places to teach kids to ride their bikes,” she said.
During her walk to school, she pointed out two intersections without crosswalks. Another busy intersection near the school that did have a crosswalk—and a crossing guard—is notorious for being dangerous. “It gets crazy here sometimes,” said Hubert Lee, who has helped people cross that spot for eight years. Some cars ignored him as he blew his whistle and ventured out into the street with his handheld stop sign. “See what I mean?” he said. “People don’t even stop.”
Meleg, who participated in a recent Safe Routes walk audit, was encouraged by an idea to apply filters to traffic lights near that intersection, which are supposed to prevent drivers from seeing the color of the signal until they are at closer range. This is intended to slow down driving, she said. But installing other safety necessities she’d like to see (for example additional signage, rubber speed bumps, crosswalks and light signals) would cost tens of thousands of dollars. “With the fiscal crisis, especially in Oakland, we’re going to be very hard pressed to get many of these changes made,” she said. “My understanding is you have to keep on it.”
Despite the obstacles, Meleg expressed excitement over what is to come as Safe Routes continues to grow. She said more Laurel parents will be receiving vests like hers this week, and that a bike rack for the school is slated to be installed before the Walk and Roll event, thanks to an agreement Safe Routes helped negotiate. The city’s department of engineering and construction will now provide free bike racks to any Oakland public school that wants them.
When asked why she liked walking to school, Meleg’s daughter Devynn replied, “I get to see new houses and new people—and you don’t pollute the air.” A few moments later, she added cheerfully, “And you’re getting exercise!”
Alameda County schools can still participate in International Walk or Roll to School day on October 3 by visiting the Safe Routes to Schools website and emailing email@example.com for more information or guidance. While pencils and snacks cannot be provided at this time, other items and resources can be downloaded from the website.