By John Geluardi
Daily Planet staff
Across Berkeley, walking caravans of school children accompanied by parents - and in some cases politicians - took to the streets Tuesday morning carrying brightly colored signs to participate in International Walk to School Day.
“Besides being fun, it’s a great way to promote the benefits of walking or riding to school,” said Berkeley Unified School Board Member John Selawsky, who rode his bicycle along with a walking caravan. “It’s also a great way of interacting with neighbors and getting to know your community better.”
The annual event is part of a national Safe Routes to School campaign, which works to increase the number of kids walking to school by making the streets safer for pedestrians. Joining communities across the country, the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition’s Safe Routes To Schools program organized walking caravans to seven of the city’s elementary schools for the annual event.
The California State Senate approved a bill providing $70 million statewide in September for creating safer routes to schools and educating students, parents and teachers about the benefits of walking or biking to school. The bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Gray Davis by the end of October.
One walking caravan, headed for Malcolm X Arts and Academic Magnet School, began its 15-block trip at 7:20 a.m. from College Avenue. About 15 people started on the walk but as the group made its way down Woolsey Street, stopping at homes along the way to collect more parents and students, the ranks of the colorful procession swelled to nearly 50 people and one dog.
Also joining the walking caravan en route were supportive city officials, including Mayor Shirley Dean, Councilmember Kriss Worthington and Transportation Commission Chair Stephen Wheeler.
Kids and parents carried brightly colored signs painted with traffic safety messages such as “Slow down for Kids.” Two school girls carried yellow cardboard cutouts in the shape of a vehicle with “Malcolm X Walking School Bus” written on its side. Many drivers honked in support as the caravan made its way to school along the tree-lined residential streets of south Berkeley.
“Walking to school is important because it saves oil,” said Malcolm X student Hanna Curtiss. “And basically I’ve never really walked to school before. It’s fun.”
Berkeley’s Safe Routes to Schools Project Manager Sarah Syed, who organized the walking caravans at the seven elementary schools for Walk to School Day, said it was important for city officials to participate in the event.
“It’s great to have city leaders walk along with the kids so they can see how short the traffic light cycles are at intersections and how fast the traffic is.”
Katherine Capps, who joined the caravan with her daughter Miranda Hourula, said she felt secure walking with a large group, but has reservations about walking to school in smaller groups of two or three people.
“Crossing the streets in Berkeley has become dangerous,” she said. “There have been times when I’ve been in the middle of the crosswalk with two or three kids and cars still race through as if we weren’t there.”
The walking caravan encountered one aggressive driver on Woolsey Street who felt the adult bicyclists accompanying the group were not moving fast enough. The woman, driving a maroon Volvo with three school-aged passengers, honked her horn as she accelerated onto Woolsey Street dangerously near one bicyclist.
Unsatisfied, the woman stopped her car and yelled unintelligibly in the general direction of the walking caravan before speeding away. While no children were in danger, some of the parents said the driver’s behavior was unsettling.
Wheeler agreed that some Berkeley streets are dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists but said the majority of neighborhood streets are really quite safe. He said that parents who feel they have to drive their kids to school have become a “little too overprotective.”
“Ironically parents are making the situation more dangerous for kids because so many of them are driving their kids to school, which creates more traffic,” he said.
Wheeler added that it would only take improving safety at a few key intersections to make Berkeley a safer place overall to walk and bicycle to schools.
The mayor’s husband, Dan Dean, a former Berkeley High School counselor, who also joined the walking caravan, said one benefit of children walking to school is they have used up some excess energy by the time they arrive in class and are ready to concentrate.
“Walking to school is also great for waking up the kids who don’t wake up so easily in the morning,” he said.
Selawsky said walking or bicycling to school promotes health in two ways; by getting kids in the habit of exercising and by reducing automobile pollution.
“If some of the people who walked or rode in the caravan today continue to do it on a regular basis, then it was a success,” he said.