Signage makes clear there are issues with traffic and pedestrian safety outside Malcolm X Elementary School on Ashby. Photos: Tracey Taylor.

Perhaps it’s because this particular school is located on a state highway, or perhaps it’s because one of its six-year-old students was run over on a crosswalk next to the school three years ago. Most likely both factors have contributed to a strong feeling among many parents at Malcolm X Elementary School that pedestrian safety needs to be improved on Ashby Avenue (State Highway 13), in particular at the point where it intersects with Ellis Street.

Promised improvements, they say, have been a long time coming and many problems have still not been addressed. In response, the city cites the particular difficulty it faces with green-lighting work on Ashby which, because it is a highway, comes under the jurisdiction of Caltrans. “It is very challenging for us, because any work we want to do involves submitting an encroachment permit to Caltrans, and, with state budget issues, Caltrans has been very slow to respond,” says Farid Javandel, Berkeley’s transportation division manager.

In the hope of galvanizing the powers that be into taking action, a group of Malcolm X parents and staff is organizing a Safety Rally on Wednesday March 9 at the school to raise awareness of the struggles the community says it is having to get safety improvements made in the neighborhood. The rally, which will involve kids and their art projects, coincides with a monthly Walk to School Day, an initiative of the federally funded Safe Routes to School program.

The intersection of Ashby and Ellis has crosswalks but no traffic signals.

Jenne King, a Malcolm X parent and the chair of its safety committee, says: “After Nia was hit there was a big meeting and many improvements were proposed. To date only a few trees have been trimmed and signs are being slowly replaced. The biggest problem is that hundreds of thousands of dollars for flashing lights, pedestrian beacons, and substantial safety improvements never occur. Safe Routes to School continues to encourage our students to walk to school, even though our school zone is dangerous and worsening.”

In fact, the city has been awarded at Safe Routes to School grant worth $998,000 to make safety improvements in the vicinity of Berkeley schools. According to Javandel, four schools were earmarked for projects: Malcolm X, Thousand Oaks, Berkeley Arts Magnet and Rosa Parks. The decision on prioritizing work is made partly, Javandel says, by analyzing the history of pedestrian- or bicycle-related accidents in specific neighborhoods. The numbers for those four schools are, respectively, one, two, two and one in recent years.

Safe Routes to School is encouraging parents to use the crosswalk at Ashby and King which has a traffic signal.

Javandel says the plan is to install beacons with flashing lights on the Ashby-Ellis crosswalk — similar to those recently put in at the new Ed Roberts Campus. He says an encroachment permit will be submitted to Caltrans by the end of March and the hope is they will respond and approve the project within six weeks.

Javandel also points out that some improvements have already been made on the streets around Malcolm X School. “We put in some traffic calming bulbs several years ago. But these did not address Ashby. And one year ago we upgraded the signs,” he says.

The intersection of Ashby and Ellis has crosswalks, but no traffic signals. Cars on Ashby tend to drive fast, and drop-off time brings its own set of problems. “Cars drop off students on Ellis and it gets very backed up,” says Rachel Davidman, Education Coordinator for Safe Routes to Schools in Alameda County, who will be participating at the rally. “There are lots of people walking that way too.”

Another participant at the rally will be Frank Cruz, whose five-year-old son Zachary was killed at the intersection of Derby and Warring while walking to an after-school program with teachers, almost exactly two years ago.

Frank Cruz has set up a foundation in his son’s name to support pedestrian safety projects and educational philanthropy in the Bay Area. His son’s death has prompted police pedestrian safety campaigns in the city, but there are no plans to change the configuration of the Derby-Warring intersection. Councilmember Gordon Wozniak says it is a subject he intends to raise with the City Council soon.

On March 9 at Malcolm X School, Davidman will be pointing parents to the crosswalk on Ashby and King which is one block east of Ellis and has both traffic signals and, at peak times, a crossing guard. “We are going to be encouraging people to cross there. It may mean a little more walking, but it’s safer,” she says.

Update, 16.55: The BPD and BFD have reminded us that March has been named Pedestrian Safety Month in Berkeley to honor the memory of Zachary Cruz. Read more here.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...