Poor travel routes, emphasis on cars mean fewer students walk to school

As routes to school go, the half-mile walk from Deterding Park to Thomas Edison Language Institute on Hurley Way in Sacramento is a disappointment.

Sidewalks are nearly nonexistent. Students who do walk have to navigate bike lanes adjacent to morning commute traffic. A stoplight that the principal said provided a safe student crossing at Morse Avenue was recently removed.

“This route is just so dangerous,” said Tricia Hedahl of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. “It’s insane. Unfortunately, this is commonplace for schools in Sacramento County.”

At Edison, dozens of students joined an organized trek from the park to the campus on Wednesday to recognize International Walk to School Day.

Only a few generations ago, walking to school or a bus stop was a regular part of daily life for millions of students in California.

These days, more than half of students in California and close to 60 percent in the Sacramento region are shuttled to and from campuses in private vehicles, according to a 2013 report, “Travel to School in California.” About 12 percent of students in the Sacramento region walk to school, the report said.

A decline in funding for school buses, greater emphasis on automobile travel, the increased volume and speed of traffic on major streets, and worries about crime have turned the concept of walking to school on its head.

At the same time, a growing number of open-enrollment and charter campuses in the region serve students who live miles away, creating a virtual scattergram of parents crisscrossing the region to get to school.

“People see walking to school sort of negatively now,” said Teri Duarte, executive director of WALKSacramento, a group that promotes safe walking environments. “Many parents think, ‘I’m a good parent, therefore I don’t allow my child to walk to school.’”

The “Travel to School in California” survey found that parents have significant concerns about the volume and speed of traffic along school routes. Duarte acknowledged that those worries have merit.

“In the suburban areas, many residential streets feed onto wide arterials with high speeds, heavy traffic volumes and very poor crossings infrastructure,” Duarte said.

“The crossings are the dangerous part,” she added. “Some of these neighborhoods even lack sidewalks and places to get across the street safely.”

Health-wise, however, students pay a price when they abandon walking, she said.

“Kids who see green (on a walk) are calmer,” Duarte said. “They have a sense of where they live. They learn to socialize. The benefits of walking to school are enormous and hard to replace with organized sports.”

One problem, for now, is limited funding. Todd Lindeman, principal at Thomas Edison, said he hopes to get on the county’s radar for neighborhood sidewalk funding.

“We’re very concerned with Hurley Way because there are parts of the street that don’t have sidewalks and we have young kids walking to school,” Lindeman said. Morning commuters, he said, “might not be paying attention, or they’re running late, or drinking their coffee and on the cellphone.”

Lindeman added that the removal of a stoplight on Morse Avenue made a bad situation worse. County officials say they removed the “substandard” stoplight after a pedestrian count showed usage to be very low. Reza Moghissi, chief of the county’s maintenance and operations, said the county plans to monitor the intersection and improve signage and the crosswalk markings if needed.

Lindeman led the kids Wednesday on their walk from the park, but not until he had coached the group to “walk facing traffic” and to “stay as close to the side as you can” in the single-file walk to school. “You have got to be really careful,” he said.

A few parents joined the walk, as did a half-dozen bicyclists.

Vanessa Stacholy said she typically drives her 8-year-old daughter, Marissa, the three miles from home to school. Marissa and her family chose Edison through open enrollment several years ago because of its language institute, Stacholy said.

When Marissa got her bike, she wanted to ride herself to school. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Suburban planning has further discouraged walking, said Jonathan London, assistant professor and director of the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis.

“They’ve been built to move large numbers of cars as quickly and smoothly as possible – and not with pedestrians or cyclists in mind,” London said.

There are efforts to reverse the trend.

A new state transportation funding program approved by the governor in September will stabilize the state’s Safe Routes to Schools program for several years and encourage more sidewalk construction, bike lanes and other pedestrian improvements.