Opinion: Step up for student safety and climate action

We don’t want BUSD to value our kids’ safety when they’re on the bus but ignore it when they travel by foot or bike. 

Walking and bicycling are widely agreed to be the best ways for a kid to get to school. So why is Berkeley Unified School District’s Transportation Department blocking proposed walking and biking safety improvements?

Our current experience at Washington Elementary School illustrates the problem. In spring 2019, a series of meetings took place between families, the Washington principal, and the city transportation division about dangerous conditions for walking and biking to school. BUSD Transportation Department staff were invited to those meetings. Despite committing to come and receiving reminder calls, they did not show up. 

The meetings focused on how to improve walking and biking safety at Washington. Located at the busy intersection of Bancroft and Martin Luther King Jr., two of the three access points are currently almost exclusively devoted to car drop-offs.  This leaves only one limited access point for families biking to school, and even there, students biking or walking regularly have near misses with cars. During the meetings, the group came up with a potential solution to reorganize the access areas, but it required money and effort.  The city transportation division said they would see what they could do.  

Imagine our delight when city staff informed the Washington Elementary community in January that they’d received a small grant to move drop-offs around to improve overall safety. After years of cars almost hitting kids on foot and bike, safety improvements were on the way!  

That is, improvements were on the way – until the BUSD Transportation Department derailed them. Although they have not provided us with any clear explanation of their position, the city and principal told us that the district’s transportation department is adamantly opposed to the plan. It seems the department sees its responsibility as primarily about school buses, rather than overall school transportation.  As a result, they resist any change to school bus drop-off locations, even changes that would affect buses minimally and would make the overall experience of getting to school dramatically safer.  

But transportation decisions are much bigger than just school buses, important as those are. How kids get to school matters for walking and biking safety, for physical activity and health, for asthma rates and for our climate future. Walking and biking give kids physical activity, which supports their health, helps them focus on learning, and reduces air pollution.  

Meanwhile, gas-powered vehicles are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Berkeley.  That’s why Berkeley’s climate plan envisions walking, biking, and transit as the primary means to get around in Berkeley in the future. Making it safe and easy to walk and bike is a core way cities can help avoid the hellscape of climate change-driven wildfires that have poisoned our air, damaged our lungs, and scarred our state in the last few years. If we take these considerations seriously, we’d expect BUSD to be working earnestly to make walking and biking to school safe and convenient. 

But that’s not happening, as our experience at Washington makes clear. Why not? We’re not entirely sure, since the BUSD Transportation Department has avoided any conversation with families. When we asked by email, we were given the cryptic response, “Until I am given further instructions to speak openly by my superior I cannot divulge any concerns I may have at this time.”  

Student transportation is not military intelligence. BUSD is a public entity. If the BUSD Transportation Department has qualms that override the city’s prioritization of walking and biking, families’ real concerns about their children’s safety, and the need to adapt to the climate crisis, they should share them. If they want input into safety improvements, they should attend meetings on the front end. It is easy to criticize proposed changes; it is hard, but essential, to come up with a safe and reasonable balance of needs.  

According to the city’s 2020 Vision Zero annual report, “The numbers are stark – collisions involving someone riding a bicycle or walking make up almost 65% of collisions that result in death or severe injury, despite making up just 40% of trips in Berkeley.”  As a recent Berkeleyside article noted, traffic collisions were up 34 percent in Berkeley in 2021, with pedestrians making up more than 60 percent of fatalities. Kids who are walking and biking are experiencing real dangers, while travel by school bus is incredibly safe.    

We can’t pit the safety of kids who are getting to school in different ways against each other. These are all the same kids, and the responsibility of the BUSD Transportation Department is to all of them. We don’t want BUSD to value our kids’ safety when they’re on the bus but ignore it when they travel by foot or bike. We don’t want BUSD undermining actions by the city to protect our kids’ future.  It’s time for BUSD’s Transportation Department to stop acting as a roadblock and start working toward safe and healthy transportation for all students.  

Three of the authors currently have children at Washington Elementary School and have had or have been students in the Berkeley school system for up to 15 years. Ben Gerhardstein is a Walk Bike Berkeley coordinating committee member. Rebecca Meyer is the Safe Routes to School parent coordinator and Safety Committee leader for Washington Elementary. Sara Zimmerman is a lawyer and a diversity, equity, and inclusion specialist who directs the Climate Equity Policy Center. Neva Zamil is a senior at Berkeley High School and a former student at Washington Elementary School who has at various points rode the school bus, walked, bicycled, taken public transportation, been driven by parents, and carpooled to school.