Opinion

Save the children, fix the traffic

Bob Graef -
Bob Graef
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June 12, 2007. I turned east on 100th at Marysvilles Fred Meyer and ran smack into gridlock. Traffic oozed through the stop at 100th and 51st at
a rate that let roadside walkers pass me. It happens every weekday.
The cause? It seems that parents of every Cascade Elementary student join with hapless commuters to jam things up when they converge to retrieve their children. A recent Herald headline pointed out the core of the problem: Fewer than half of U.S. kids within a mile of school walk or ride bicycles.
I grew up at a time when crazy drivers and perverts were few. Accordingly, Mom and Dad felt free to shoo me out the door to make my way on the streets. Todays parents, fearing for their childrens safety, opt for the security of the family car over whatever might happen to their children on the way to or from school. Blame it on lurid news-casting. Blame it on the real presence of pedophiles in our neighborhoods. Whatever, parents no longer feel secure in letting children roam.
In 1942, Peggy Taylor, who lived way down by the river, walked fourteen blocks to Orchard Avenue Grade School, grades 3-6. She survived. Peggy and her neighbor, Marvin Richter, trudged up Park Road, picking up Audrey and Buzz near Kortes Grocery. By the time Dick Thiele and I joined in, the pack had split into boys and girls. Dolores Gibler and the Bascetta kids connected with us for the final five blocks to school. The girls were usually out in front which left us guys to kick tin cans and pitch rocks at insulators.
The way home started from one point, which gave Miss Russell an opportunity to mold us into the semi-disciplined troop she called, The Walking Lines. Upper-grade monitors harassed us like sheep dogs to keep a semblance of order. Two abreast, groups set out from school at 3:30 toward four points of the compass. We had no school buses.
Marysvilles school transportation plans contain something akin to my 1942 walking experience. Its called The Walking School Bus. It began when Shoultes Elementary parents worked up a scheme to combine getting to and from school with much-needed physical exercise. They charted a safe route, enlisted adult supervisors (no throwing rocks at insulators) and hit the streets. The scheme worked well enough that a Walking School Bus route began this year at Marshall Elementary.
Walking School Buses fit hand-in-glove with Oaklands Healthy Communities initiative. Exercise, economy, reduced traffic and bringing people together; Walking School Buses do all of that.
Elsewhere, students ride public buses to school. No school buses operate in New York City so kids are offered special student passes for the MTA. Orange or green metro-cards are discounted separately for grades K-6 or 7-12. Kids under 44 inches in height ride free. In Floridas Dade County, little squirts up to 42 inches ride free while discounts are available for bigger kids.
Delawares Fairfield and Licking counties transport kids on public buses for $20 per month. Compare that with Torontos charge of $23.75 per week. Public school children in Sacramento pay $34 per month. Across the map you can find every variation from all kids on school buses to all kids on public buses to cooperative mixing of systems.
Practical realities dictate how any town transports its school children and those realities change over time. One reality that cripples school budgets is the staggering cost of running fleets of yellow buses. In Kansas, if every student rode school buses at a per student cost per day of $1.61, the cost to a district of 5,000 students would be $1,449,000 per year. And thats cheap. Wherever school buses run, only a fraction of their operating costs is borne by the state, requiring a big pie-slice from school districts general budgets.
Billings Montanas schools cover this by charging $75 per semester to ride school buses. Californias Eureka sells punch cards that vary between $1.10 and $1.40 per day. Alabama calculated the daily cost for transporting one student to be a whopping $4.36.
Although some would argue, there is social benefit to be gained from school children mixing with adults on public buses. Some fear that negative behaviors of older people might threaten children, a fear that almost split Marysville when primary students briefly shared the Marysville-Pilchuck campus with teenagers. What actually happened was a heart-warming outpouring of care as teenagers took the little ones under their collective wings. The big kids actually felt deprived when time came for the youngsters to be transferred to a new elementary facility.
A main reason school children dont ride public buses is scheduling. You simply cant jam commuters and school populations into the same buses at the same time of day. So on one hand we maintain commuters bus fleets that fill up only during morning and evening commutes. On the other hand we fund school bus fleets that sit idle during weekends, holidays, summers and much of each weekday.
There seems to be no way around it. If school schedules didnt closely mirror commuters schedules a shared fleet of buses would do. But with traditional working schedules locking commuters to fixed hours and issues such as school athletics dictating when the school day starts and ends, were stuck with the situation so long as we choose to accept it.
The Walking School Bus program is making inroads, proving that a watchful and flexible public can bring about change. More change will be unavoidable as the challenge of transporting an ever-increasing population of students, workers, shoppers, recreationists, sight-seers, medical patients, lovers and what-have-you overburdens existing systems.
What can be done? Find out what you can do to support a Walking School Bus program at your local school.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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