On Wednesday morning, Berkeley parents, teachers and elementary school children walked or rode on bikes to school to make a statement about global warming, obesity and to mark International Walk to School Day.
Alameda County used the event, observed in 38 countries, to launch the Safe Routes to Schools program.
“One reason why parents fear to let their kids walk to school is because of strangers or bullies. That has to stop,” said Nora Cody, director of Alameda County’s Safe Routes to Schools. “We are also trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, childhood obesity and asthma. All the studies about creating behavior changes show that you need to change the environment. We want to address any barriers that prevent that.”
Countywide, 50 schools signed up to participate in the day, coordinated by the Safe Routes to Schools Alameda County Partnership, comprising the Transportation and Land Use Coalition, Alameda County Public Health Department and Cycles of Change.
The partnership received $1 million in funding from the Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority, Caltrans, Kaiser Permanente and the Laurel, Hewlett and Bayer foundations.
At Berkeley Arts Magnet (BAM), 78 students walked to school Wednesday while 30 rode their bikes. Twenty students used cars and the rest arrived by school bus.
Walking ”school buses” were set up at six locations within the one-mile non-busing-zone radius of the school.
“We had two busy intersections to cross,” said Maureen Jerrett, the BAM task force representative for Safe Routes to School. “First, Virginia and Oxford, with over 25,000 cars a day, and then Virginia and Shattuck, with over 34,000 cars a day. Besides promoting the health benefits of physical fitness and reduced congestion around the schools, our walk increased the visibility in our neighborhoods that kids use these roads to walk to school and need to arrive safely.”
City officials from the health department, Berkeley police department officers and volunteers from the YMCA were also on hand to help the students.
According to the Safe Routes to School handbook, cars are responsible for 50 percent of the Bay Area’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“Travel to school accounts for approximately 25 percent of morning traffic,” Jerrett said. “In one generation, the number of kids walking and bicycling to school has dropped from 70 to 18 percent.”
Beth Gerstein, who walks her two children to school everyday, said that the exercise makes them more alert.
“Those are some of the best moments with my kids,” she said. “Why waste the gas? We live in Berkeley. It’s got a fantastic climate and a mile is not that much anyway.”
Brothers Connor and Cameron Henritzy said they had walked for 40 minutes from Shasta Road to get to school that morning.
“We drive all the time except for today,” Cam-eron said pointing proud-ly at his “I walked to School Today” sticker. “I am a little tired but it was fun because I got to see a mom and a dad deer. I saw things I have never noticed before.”
Thousand Oaks, the largest elementary school in Berkeley, asked students to chart with color-coded dots the ways they got to school.
“A rapid and good natured competition grew between walkers and school bus users,” said Amber Evans, the school’s Safe Routes to School coordinator. “Bikers outnumbered scooters or carpoolers 2 to 1.”
The two biking trains, which leave daily from Monterey Market and just south of Gilman on Santa Fe, added six families who have never biked to school before on Wednesday.
Thousand Oaks plans to have Walking Wednesdays every last Wednesday of the month starting this Halloween, when kids traditionally parade along Solano Avenue in costume.
Photograph by Mark Coplan.