Almanac

Viewpoint - February 12, 2014

Editorial: Safety in jeopardy during school rush hours

The Menlo Park City School District is pushing forward in a search for suggestions from town officials and parents to help resolve the heavy traffic congestion that clogs roadways around its schools. The worst of the problems is around Encinal School at Encinal Avenue and Middlefield Road, where every morning and afternoon there are long queues of traffic that can back up on Middlefield as far as Marsh Road.

The K-5 school is one of four in the district that is experiencing major enrollment growth, and consequently, increasing numbers of parents who are driving their children to and from the campus.

Over the last few weeks, school administrators have held two public meetings, reaching out to parents, and to staff of the Menlo Park transportation department, the Atherton and Menlo Park police departments, and the county, to brainstorm what can be done.

During the meeting focusing on Encinal and Laurel school traffic, parents recounted their experiences navigating the narrow road serving Encinal as it becomes gridlocked during the morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up, a dangerous situation for children who are walking or biking to school. They shared stories about the challenges of commuting and suggested ways to make it better and improve safety.

The nucleus of the problem at Encinal is with eastbound parents trying to turn left into the school parking lots from Encinal Avenue. And even though crossing guards are available to help out, there have been reports of drivers losing their tempers and speeding around long lines of vehicles, sometimes driving on the shoulder to get by.

Another big issue that impacts Encinal is that southbound cars back up on Middlefield Road as they attempt to reach Menlo Park from the Bayshore Freeway. This wall of traffic can make it very difficult for cars heading east on Encinal to enter Middlefield Road, even with a traffic signal.

Another way to ease school traffic is to provide school bus service to some neighborhoods, which would immediately take the pressure off parents who are concerned about their students' safety walking or biking to school. Such a solution would be costly, but it would almost immediately reduce school traffic to a manageable amount. The district currently has one bus, serving Laurel School students.

Officers from the Atherton Police Department have been on the job, according to Chief Ed Flint, who says officers are patrolling around the schools (Encinal and Laurel) every day, sometimes issuing citations but often just giving out warnings. The chief notes that the solution will have to include what he calls the three E's, "enforcement, education and engineering." All three "need to be in play" to deal with this issue, he said.

So far, the Atherton department has not seen it necessary to station a police officer on Encinal to direct traffic to and from at the school's entrance. If the traffic crunch does not ease up, it may be worthwhile to have a professional directing traffic instead of a crossing guard.

But overall, the school district is doing the right thing to bring in the experts to try to improve the situation. Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's facilities and operations director, told the Almanac after the Encinal meeting that he believes safely getting to and from school will improve, but it will take time.

"There's no one answer. It's about finding small solutions to add up to solve the bigger problem."

Note: An earlier version of this editorial called for Atherton to install a stop light at Encinal Avenue and Middlefield Road. A traffic light is already in place at this intersection. The Almanac regrets the error.

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