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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

GoLocal: School Traffic in Sonoma County

It's All About ME!
Well, summer’s over. I can tell because it suddenly takes me as much as 10 minutes to get onto Hwy 116 in the morning. The kids are back in school and the roads are packed. The good folks at the Climate Protection Campaign tell me that when school resumes traffic increases by about 20% - 30% and that in the last 40 years, walking and biking to school has come down from 50% to less than 15%.

All these added cars are mostly one parent and one kid. What a waste. The school buses are so much more efficient yet are running half full and becoming “too costly” to operate.
It’s not just about the wastefulness. Drop off and pick times at schools are a traffic nightmare. Here at our school in Graton you literally cannot drive through for at least 30 minutes before or after school. In Forestville Carr’s Drive-In becomes a Carr’s Park-In. This is also the most dangerous part of the day for kids. The traffic, over excited kids, and distracted parents on their cell phones is a deadly brew.

How can we teach our kids to be green if we don’t practice conservation in our daily lives? Sure there is a legitimate concern about child abduction. But the fact is that kids face a greater risk in the family car than they do walking, biking or on the school bus. It doesn’t have to be so. There are really good options, the aforementioned school bus for one. There is also a great program called Walking School Buses in which a parent walks with the kids and collects them along the way. October 7th was Walk Roll to School Day, sponsored for Safe Routes to School and the Sonoma County Bicycle Collation who expect most schools and kids will participate this year.
Unlike commuting to work most of this added traffic and environmental impact is discretionary waste. It would not take a huge effort to reduce single car transport of kids by 50%. If we can’t do it for the environment, perhaps the burgeoning childhood obesity epidemic might motivate us?

Here’s the deal. Are we going to get serious about making real change or not? Improving school transportation efficiency is an obvious and highly impactful program that has all sorts of benefits. While campaigns like Safe Routes to School do a good job of building awareness about the issue much more could be done.

So what is preventing this from really taking off? I can’t help but think that the resistance is basically that we think that our own personal convenience is more important than changing our behavior in ways that could save the planet. After all, “I’m only driving a few miles and my child’s safety is really important to me.”

As a playground designer I’ve worked in hundred’s of schools for decades and have always had an interest in this issue. Virtually every principal I’ve talked with has tried and failed to solve the problem. Most principals literally have to be a traffic cop for several hours every school day just to avert disaster. Parents feel that they have a “right” to personally chauffer their kids to campus, to park wherever they can, and basically ignore traffic laws. As a community we lack the conceptual framework for mounting a compelling argument to convince parents otherwise. How can we expect to make the hard environmental behavioral changes that will soon become necessary if we cannot solve even this relatively simple and obvious problem? Must we wait to change until a law is passed or environmental conditions deteriorate to the extent that we have no choice?

Think about it as you deal with the traffic tomorrow morning.

Additional Resources:
Jay Beckwith
Safe Routes to School
Bicycle Collation Sonoma County

READERS: If you want to gain attention on this issue at your child’s school, please submit photos of morning and afternoon traffic jams so others can SEE that this is a problem. Send photos to