A small group of adults gather with Jennifer Donlon Wyant in front of Birch Lane Elementary School. It’s early still — 7:45 a.m. — and students have not yet begun to arrive at school on this April morning.
There are Birch Lane parents here, members of Davis Bicycles!, representatives from the city of Davis as well as the school district, and Wyant, an associate with Alta Planning & Design, which has been hired to help determine what infrastructure changes could make it safer for children walking and biking to school in Davis.
By the time the walk and bike audit gets underway at Birch Lane, Alta has already conducted audits at three other elementary schools in Davis — with many more to come — and common themes have begun to emerge.
Behavioral issues that already have been documented include drivers ignoring crossing guards and traveling too fast in school zones, and kids with helmets dangling from their handlebars rather than on their heads, not to mention kids ignoring the rules of the road altogether in some cases.
There are structural issues — drop-off and loading zones in front of schools that are simply too small — and more basic impediments to bike safety, like piles of yard waste blocking bike lanes, leaving children to dart out into auto traffic to get around them.
Parents and community members have been offering their own concerns on a website set up for exactly that purpose, http://saferoutesdavis.org/community-input.
Here, parents can find safe routes to school, draw new ones and provide comments and feedback on specific intersections and locations of concern. Those locations are then looked at during the audits.
At Birch Lane, for example, hot spots were noted in multiple locations: the intersection of Covell Boulevard and Birch Lane, which includes not just those two streets but also a frontage road and multiple lights and signs governing travel through the intersection; the front of the school along Birch Lane, where parents drop children off, as well as along Baywood Lane behind the school where there is a heavy mix of children arriving on foot, on bikes and in cars, all on a relatively narrow residential street.
The intersection of Pole Line Road and Loyola Drive is another area of concern.
“We have a lot of parent complaints about that intersection,” said Sanne Fettinger, the parent rep for bike programs at Birch Lane.
So as the bike audit gets underway at Birch Lane, Wyant sends two or three volunteers to each location, to observe what’s happening as children make their way to school. Wyant herself heads to the front of Birch Lane and spots issues immediately.
“I see a lot of ‘No U-turn’ signs, but I’m already seeing a lot of U-turns,” she noted.
She expresses concern about drivers pulling up on the other side of the street and sending their children darting across Birch Lane in traffic. The presence of yard waste in the bike lanes, which leads bicyclists to pedal out into the street to get around it, just heightens the risk of an accident.
Indeed, there is almost a sense of a disaster waiting to happen: kids on bikes weaving through traffic and double-parked cars trying to get to school, parents not even pulling over to the curb before letting their kids out, a good-sized construction truck doing a three-point turn right in front of the school, and, of course, the constant U-turns.
Some Birch Lane parents and staff — including Principal Kathy Tyzzer — have suggested that making Birch Lane a one-way street would go a long way toward reducing the dangers. Drivers would enter Birch Lane from Pole Line and exit at Covell, so there would be no more U-turns and no more need to send kids running across the street through traffic.
But education could solve the problem, too, others say.
Parents who pull up across the street need to send their children down the sidewalk to one of two crosswalks manned by crossing guards, rather than telling them to simply run across the street, Wyant noted.
Drivers also need to continue forward until they find an open space to pull over completely. Wyant notes that most don’t seem to realize there is plenty of parking in a 3-minute loading zone farther north on Birch Lane. Having staff or parent volunteers out there helping to direct the process could make a big difference, she said.
Parent education could be key.
Rachael Kaufman, a longtime yard duty aide at Birch Lane who also serves as a crossing guard in front of the school, has seen it all.
“People are on their cell phones, blocking the crosswalks, parking in the red zones, blocking driveways … there are tons of issues,” she said. “(And) most issues are with the parents. The kids are phenomenal.
“I’ve had a few impatient drivers that roll (up) on me while I’m still in the crosswalk with the kids and the kids will say, ‘Are they supposed to do that?’ ” she added.
Once Birch Lane kids are all safely in their classrooms, the audit participants gather to talk about their observations, with Wyant making note of all of it.
Christal Waters of Davis Bicycles! was stationed at Covell and Birch Lane.
“It’s a very interesting intersection,” she said.
There is a frontage road on the south side of Covell that runs parallel to it, and kids have to navigate across both. But there are issues with a too-short bike crossing light, a not very visible “No Right Turn” sign, and other concerns that Waters and others noted.
Behind the school on Baywood, students were observed ignoring the stop sign on Clemson Drive; parents letting children out of cars in the middle of the street; and city Street Smarts coordinator Rachel Hartsough reported hearing about children after school shooting straight out of the bike path and into the intersection without stopping.
At Loyola and Pole Line, multiple issues are observed.
Audit participants discovered if cyclists hit the button for the bike crossing signal, they’ll get across the intersection in plenty of time. But if they rely on the infrared to switch the signal, they’ll barely make it across before the bike light turns red.
Drivers traveling westbound on Loyola, meanwhile, can’t clearly see the bike signal (which prohibits right turns on red when the bike signal is green) because of the glare of the morning sun. Many cars were seen turning right on red when they weren’t supposed to.
Meanwhile, cars traveling north on Pole Line don’t see a bike signal at all, meaning a right turn onto Loyola could prove dangerous if a bicyclist crosses the intersection believing there’s an all-clear.
The issue of safe walking and biking to school is governed by the five “E’s,” Wyant said: engineering, as well as education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation.
And while the audit is focused more on the engineering component, the remaining E’s are part of ongoing efforts by the city and school district to make walking and biking to school safer.
May is Bike Month in Davis, meaning there are multiple opportunities to educate and encourage.
The big highlight is, of course, Loopalooza, which takes place on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event showcases the city’s 12-mile bike loop and how it can be used by children to travel safely to and from school.
Ten stations around the Bike Loop will host fun and educational activities like coloring, a safety skills course and water games.
Families can check in at any of the stations to obtain a passport. A liability waiver for adults, and signed permission form for children, are required to obtain the passport. With passport in hand, families can ride however far along the loop they want, stopping at the stations to get the passport stamped and to participate in whatever activity is available at that station.
Small prizes will be given for kids who have at least three passport stamps and the certificate of completion will be given to each child who completes the full 12-mile circle. A limited supply of Loopalooza logo water bottles will be available at many stations for those needing refreshment. Clif Bars will be free at all stations for those needing quick energy.
Wednesday, May 8, is National Bike to School Day, when all children in Davis are encouraged to arrive on bike, with most area schools offering fun activities and prizes for participants. There will even be a competition that day to see which school has the highest percentage of cyclists, based on the number of bikes in the bike rack.
Some schools will be hosting bike rodeos for their students in May, as well as visits from Peter Wagner’s Whymcycles, and the scan-and-notify system will continue at area schools all year long.
Finally there are the additional walk-and-bike audits.
The next audit is slated for Holmes Junior High School and takes place on Tuesday, May 7, beginning at 7:30 a.m. Volunteers will meet at the school office and then fan out to the school’s hot spots. Similar audits will take place at Willett Elementary School on Thursday, May 9, at 7:45 a.m.; Harper Junior High School on Friday, May 10, at 7:45 a.m.; Montgomery Elementary School on Tuesday, May 14, at 7:45 a.m.; Korematsu Elementary School on Thursday, May 16, at 7:45 a.m.; and Emerson/Da Vinci junior high schools on Friday, May 17, at 7:30 a.m.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy