Editor’s note: This is the first story in an ongoing Long Beach Post series called Safe Streets, looking at the challenges of getting around by foot in the city’s neighborhoods.
Walking to school. For decades in Long Beach it’s how elementary school kids got there. Lugging a bookbag and a lunchbox for a few blocks—don’t believe anyone from around here who tells you about slogging through the snow—sometimes meandering with a friend, sometimes striding briskly and purposefully alone.
For most of us, having a parent drive us to school was off the table. Dad would already be off to work and Mom would make the wry observation that we kids didn’t seem to have any broken legs, before flipping back over in bed.
Things changed over time. People who walked to school as Baby Boomers grew up into helicopter parents and purchased Dodge minivans. By the turn of the millennium, minivans morphed into SUVs and more and more parents, chiefly moms it seemed, were driving their children short distances to school, saving the kids from burning off precious, life-sustaining calories.
Though there are no statistics for Long Beach, anecdotally the city mirrors national trends. The National Household Travel Survey in 1969 revealed that 41 percent of children ages 5-18 walked or bicycled to school, with 48 percent of younger children (ages 5-14) walking or biking. By the 2000s, estimates of younger children walking or bicycling to school was less than 14 percent. In the same time period, the use of passenger vehicles for the trip to and from school has increased from 12 percent in 1969 to 50 percent in the 2000s.
The Long Beach Post is publishing an ongoing series of stories looking at the challenges of walking as a mode of transportation, particularly as it relates to getting to school. This project is spurred in part by a noticeable difference in the challenges and character of different neighborhoods. In wealthier parts of town, kids may walk down wide, uncrowded sidewalks on tree-lined streets, crossing avenues with little traffic, while Downtown, Edison Elementary School is wedged between the Seventh Street onramp to the Long Beach Freeway on the north side, and the Sixth Street offramp on the south.
The series also comes as Long Beach seeks to brand itself as a walkable city. The publication Thrillist ranked Long Beach among the most walkable places in the country, behind New York City, San Francisco and other major cities (while describing Los Angeles as a “dystopian hellscape crisscrossed by rivers of concrete”).
The ranking highlights places in town like Retro Row and Belmont Shore, as is often the case when out-of-towners swing by to write about Long Beach, readers have to wonder: did the reviewers visit the west, north or central parts of the city?
Why not walk
Of course, many of the popular memories of the classic walk to school come from the golden-tinged nostalgia of those who grew up in the more bucolic parts of town, where a stroll to school was nearly literally a walk in the park, with our intrepid students winding their way along tree-shaded avenues and maybe availing themselves of the protection of a kindly but stern crossing guard who would raise her STOP paddle as kids walked behind her like ducklings to the safety of the other side of the street.
There are parts of town where that scenario is fairly true today, though fewer students are availing themselves of it.
There are a great many perils in many parts of Long Beach in modern times. Yes, there are still easy routes for some students, but there are parts of town where mammoth trucks thunder past within inches of walking children. There are broken sidewalks, poorly maintained vegetation virtually shoving kids out into traffic, creeps and gang members hanging out at the fringes of parks and parking lots. And it is safety—from fear of unsafe traffic, abduction, gangs, fights, the whole panoply of perils both age-old and modern—that is cited by parents as being the reason for fears about letting children walk to school.
There is an effort, both nationally and locally, to make walking and biking to school safer and to urge more parents to encourage their children to make the daily journey in the old-school way.
The Walking Bus is one increasingly popular method of getting kids to hoof it to class. The concept began in Australia in 1992 and has since caught on in England and America. It’s a strolling version of a traditional school bus, in which parents and children walk along a set route, picking up others along the way to school.
The National Center for Safe Routes to School offers an array of tips and advice concerning safety and health benefits for students and parents. The Center also organizes the National Walk to School Day, held this year on Oct. 10, and Bike to School Day, scheduled for May 8, 2019.
In Long Beach, the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee is charged with making the foot-and-bike trek to school safer. The committee is composed of representatives from each of Long Beach’s nine council districts; the city traffic engineer; a representative from the non-public schools in the Long Beach area; the PTA president or his/her designee; and a representative from the Long Beach Unified School District.
The committee has been somewhat ineffectual in recent years, chiefly because of the general lack of representatives from the council districts and the particular difficulty in finding people to fill the non-public school spot. It’s a difficult commission to fill. It’s not one of the more glamorous posts in the city, yet appointees/applicants must make it through the barrage of civil service forms, exams and background checks. This year, City Manager Pat West has made it a point to try to fill the spots, or at least get enough for a quorum (seven members).
Paul Bailey, the director of transportation for LBUSD, has been the district’s representative on the committee, for 30 years—“longer than any other human,” he says.
During his tenure, Bailey has been a key and devoted committee member, almost a one-man Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee.
“In Long Beach, there are more and more kids going outside their assigned school, and with no school buses, it means they have to take public transit buses or have their parents take them,” he said.
Students who opt to go to schools other than their assigned one grow in number right along with their height. “Most kids go to their own elementary school,” said Bailey. “About 24 percent go to a different school. When you get to middle school, 66.85 percent go to their home school and 33.15 go to other schools, and in high school it’s right at 50 percent going to a school outside their assigned one.”
So you have a significant number of school children turning into commuters. And, then there’s the overall decline in the student population.
“The population peaked in 2002 and then started going down,” said Bailey. “The school district at first thought it might just be a blip, but it kept going down.”
There are a number of causes for the decline, but chief among them, says Bailey, was that it simply “got too expensive to live in Long Beach. People used to have good jobs, housing was cheaper, there was a strong middle class. Then the Navy left, Douglas left, jobs left….
“It started with us losing K-1 students, then second-graders and went down year by year because we weren’t replacing students. Now the dip has reached the high-school level.”
The peak, he said, was a student population of almost 100,000 students in the 2002-03 school year. “Then it went down by 2,000, then another 2,000, then almost 3,000 one year. Now it’s 76,273.”
All of these figures, from students being driven to school, to taking public transportation, to a shrinking population can ultimately affect the safety of those students who still make the daily walk.
The school district and the city avail themselves of Caltrans’ regulations and guidelines regarding schoolchildren’s safety, from traffic signage on and around campuses, to whether an intersection or other crossing warrants a crosswalk, a stop sign, a flashing yellow light, a traffic signal and/or a crossing guard.
The Caltrans warrants, as they’re termed, are typically based on formulas involving the the number of cars passing in a particular time-frame, the speed of those vehicles, the number of pedestrians/students using the intersection within the same time period and other concerns, including visibility.
For instance, according to Caltrans, a crossing guard might be warranted:
At uncontrolled crossings where there is no alternate controlled crossing within 180 m(eters); and in urban areas where the vehicular traffic volume exceeds 350 during each of any two hours (not necessarily consecutive) in which 40 or more school pedestrians cross daily while going to or from school.
Similar criteria are used for any number of pedestrian safety features, and in Long Beach, while many of these features are kept in place, despite dwindling numbers of pedestrians (although, conversely, an increasing number of vehicles, a shrinking number of school-walking kids can result in intersections becoming less protected because a handful of children may not warrant, as per Caltrans, the services of a crossing guard or other forms of protection against the onslaught of motor vehicles.
“There are places now where we have stop signs or traffic signals and parents want a crossing guard, but they’re just not going to get one, because there’s not enough kids using that crosswalk,” said Bailey. “There are places that might’ve met that criteria 20 years ago, but now, because the kids are going to a school of choice, or they’re just not walking, those places no longer need it.”
The school district does its part in providing safe routes to school maps to students in their back-to-school package each year. The maps are tailored for each school and show the location of crosswalks, traffic signals and crossing guards.
It is recommended that parents, especially of elementary school-age children, color in the best, safest streets to travel to school and accompany their children on practice walks.
Bailey, will retire in a couple of weeks after more than 35 years with the district, starting as a bus driver. He will be enjoying most of the new school year from the sidelines—or the crosswalks. And maybe he’ll be watching kids on the block grabbing their lunchboxes and backpacks and climbing into the Suburbans and Tahoes for the quarter-miles journey to school. Or he could become the grumpy man on the corner, shaking his head sadly as the parade of mommycabs line up in front of the school to offload their precious cargo
“There are kids out there who live a couple of blocks from school and their mom takes them in the car,” he said. “And it just floors me.”