Almanac

Schools - January 29, 2014

As traffic mounts, concerns grow about student safety

by Renee Batti

As local schools struggle to accommodate larger numbers of students than their campuses were designed for, roadways around those schools strain with high-volume traffic that the roads, too, weren't built for. It's a recipe for long-idling cars, nervous or frightened kids on bikes, and sometimes perilous maneuvers by impatient drivers. And in some cases, for road rage.

Officials in the Menlo Park City School District are working with other public agencies, including the county, the towns of Menlo Park and Atherton, and their police departments, to address growing concern over the ability of children to get to and from school safely.

Two recent community meetings — one at Hillview Middle School focusing on routes to that school and Oak Knoll in Menlo Park, the other at Encinal to talk about safe routes to that school and Laurel, both in Atherton — drew parent comments ranging from descriptions of daily commute headaches to suggestions about how to reduce the problems and increase safety.

Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's facilities and operations director, told parents attending the Jan. 23 meeting at Encinal that the district and other public agencies "want to hear your concerns and ideas, and go back to our respective agencies" to devise plans to improve conditions at each school.

Encinal has perhaps the most problematic traffic congestion of all four of the district's schools: Its driveways are off the narrow Encinal Avenue in Atherton, just west of Middlefield Road, a main thoroughfare that takes traffic from U.S. 101 and carries heavy traffic during commute hours. Parents at the Jan. 23 meeting noted that during morning drop-off and afternoon pickup times, traffic can back up on Middlefield all the way to Marsh Road. Encinal School traffic "creates a gridlock, and that creates road rage," one parent said.

Road rage was mentioned several times during the meeting; parents described the danger to kids on bikes and on foot when angry drivers pass around the queues of vehicles waiting to turn into the school parking lots, and driving onto the shoulders and bike lane.

Among those speaking at the meeting was Nikki Nagaya, a senior transportation engineer for the city of Menlo Park, who oversees the Safe Routes to Schools program, and Susannah Hill, the school district's traffic safety coordinator. Because Menlo Park is the lead agency of the Safe Routes program involving several jurisdictions, including Atherton, her department seeks and administers grants for projects such as bike lanes, signs and lighted crosswalks along designated routes to schools.

Diana Shu, the county's road operations manager, was also there to address concerns and hear ideas about solutions to problems involving safety along Laurel School routes; some of the streets in that area are in unincorporated territory, including Coleman Avenue, which parents said is a dangerous road to walk and bicycle because of cars parked along the sides.

Atherton Police Chief Ed Flint has also been involved in trying to improve safety along school routes, and told the Almanac after the meeting that, although his officers patrol areas around the schools every day, solutions must involve more than citations. "We need to look at the three 'E's' — enforcement, education and engineering," he said. "We give out a lot of warnings, and sometimes we write citations, ... but all three (E's) need to be in play when you try to deal with this issue."

Mr. Sheikholeslami said after the meeting that with all agencies working to find solutions, he believes safety getting to and from the schools will improve, but it won't be all at once. "There's no one answer," he said. "It's about finding small solutions to add up to solve the bigger problem."

The district and others working on safety issues plan to discuss ideas from the two community meetings and other issues they've been studying over a longer period "to decide where to put our efforts next," he said.

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