Want to walk to school? Laguna Beach says nope, not here
I gave a presentation about sustainable communities on October 6, which happened to be International Walk to School Day. In my talk, I mentioned that, in 1973, sixty percent of American kids walked to school; by 2006, that portion had dropped to a paltry 13 percent. I’ve written before about school sprawl and how the location and design of some schools seems explicitly designed to prevent or discourage access by foot or bicycle.
To counter this, the National Center for Safe Routes to School has sponsored a number of programs, including Walk to School Day (or, as some places called it, “Walk and Roll to School Day”). This year over three thousand schools around the country participated, including 425 in California, from Eureka to Atherton to Beverly Hills and Long Beach.
Laguna Beach was not among them, writes Cindy Sheridan in the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Nope, not even for one day does Laguna Beach want its kids getting to school other than in a motor vehicle. It’s just not safe, they argue, probably not without some reason. But riding in a car isn’t exactly safe, either, given that each year some 250,000 children are injured in automobile accidents, including 2000 who die as a result. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for children between ages two and 14.
As it turns out, there isn't much within walking distance of Laguna Beach's public schools, anyway. Look at the locations of the four schools in the Laguna Beach Unified School District, above. The high school is centrally located; but Thurston Middle School and the two elementary schools are all on the far fringes of the developed area.
“Unfortunately, the school district is right: It's just not safe or practicable in Laguna Beach for most kids to walk or roll to school.
“But [complete streets advocate Les] Miklosy is also right: In some neighborhoods, kids could walk or bike to school. But that's not a lot of kids.
“Demographics, politics and economics have incrementally eliminated the neighborhood school. In Laguna Beach, the old Aliso elementary school in South Laguna was closed down years ago due to lack of enrollment. Now kids who would have used that school travel all the way past the north city limits to El Morro.
“[School district representative Norma] Shelton reiterates these issues in a response to an e-mail from the Coastline Pilot:
‘Our district is committed to teaching 'lifelong fitness' and has robust physical education and athletic programs. However, in Laguna there are few sidewalks, winding roads with blind corners and a considerable distance for our students to travel and we cannot endorse walking or biking to school so much so that, at considerable cost (parents pay a portion), we provide busing for the elementary schools and middle school.’”
Above is a street-view photo of Thurston Middle School. Notice how the sidewalk actually stops at the school entrance, guaranteeing that any kid who dares to walk to school will find herself immediately in the path of motor vehicles. And that definitely would not be a good thing: parents' traffic at Thurston, chauffering kids to and fro, has apparently gotten so heavy and unwieldy that the school has posted a flyer full of sternly worded cautionary rules and a complicated-looking traffic flow map, portions below:
The Thurston dads have formed a volunteer "strike team" of on-site traffic managers whose motto is "get in, get it done, get out!" Parent or kid, sounds like a nice way to start your day, no?
Sheridan observes that El Morro Elementary, on the far left of the larger-scale satellite photo and outlined in closer view above, is basically near nothing, not even the community of Laguna Beach itself. It does sit on the Pacific Coast Highway, across from the surf, and no doubt has a spectacular view; it could hardly be closer to what in theory should be a terrific amenity for the kids. But it’s hard to imagine that they get to enjoy it much, given the traffic in between the school and the beach.
As of the 2000 census, there were 11,511 households in Laguna Beach, 18.5 percent with children under 18. The median annual income for a family is $156,115, two and a half times that of the US as a whole and over seven times that of Braddock, Pennsylvania, profiled here last week. Those who followed the high school years of Lauren, Kristen and the gang on the MTV series Laguna Beach: the Real Orange County will not be surprised that the median value of an owner-occupied home there is "$1,000,000+" according to census data.
Kids from forty countries participated in Walk to School Day. In the US, walking and cycling to school may no longer be the norm, sadly, but at least for one day parents, kids and communities made an exception. Michelle Obama got involved in promoting it. There were volunteer escorts, special treats, and the like, to make sure that it was safe and fun. As a result, a lot of kids had a blast, as you can see from the photos, and people became a bit more aware of what might be possible with a little more attention and more thoughtful school design and location. Here in DC, it was written about in the Post and celebrated on every local TV station. Across the DC line in Silver Spring, Maryland, even federal transportation secretary Ray LaHood participated.
In Laguna Beach, it was just another day in the O.C.
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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment. For more posts, see his blog's home page.
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