Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Riding a Virtual School Bus

After half a century, my memory may be fallible, but my recollection is that I walked to school, without parental accompaniment, for much of my first grade year.  My parents didn’t trust me to walk completely alone, so hooked me up with a third-grade girl who lived nearby.  Not only did I walk to school without a parent watching over me, but I did it with a cute third grader, an older woman.  It was a good school year.

Nor was the walk particularly short.  Both the house and the school still survive, although neither has aged well.  According to Google Maps, it’s 0.6 miles between the two.  And the route crosses an arterial that was busy even in 1959.  (A crossing guard may have been involved.)

I mention this because the world has changed a lot since my first grade year.

My wake-up call came in the early 1990s when the facilities manager for an Oregon school district sought my assistance in redesigning the traffic circulation at an elementary school.  His problem was that the queue of parents picking up children was interfering with school bus arrivals and departures.   I was astonished that many children received rides despite living closer than I had in my elementary school years, but site observations quickly confirmed the facility manager’s concern.

Today, I live in a neighborhood within a short walk of elementary, junior high, and high schools.  When my wife and I first moved in, we were shocked at how few students we saw on the streets.  In my subjective assessment, walking and bike-riding to the schools have increased since the initial observations.  But the traffic queues for all three schools are still long around the opening and closing bells.

There are a number of factors behind driving students to school becoming the default expectation, among them poorly located schools, the affluence to afford non-essential car trips, and largely overblown concerns about crime.  Sometimes the extent to which kids are driven to school results in absurd situations such as a father being arrested for trying to collect his kids on foot.

As an urbanist, the trend to drive children to school is distressing.  It robs our children of the chance to learn to navigate on foot and teaches them to fear the streets.  And ultimately it’s a trend that is unsustainable.

As an alternative, consider the virtual bus being used in a San Francisco neighborhood.  Acting like a bus without a motor, wheels, or seats, a group of school children with an adult as the “driver” follow a fixed route through a neighborhood, collecting “passengers” and delivering them to school.

In San Francisco, the concerns are truancy and tardiness, but the virtual bus approach could seemingly be applied to the safety concerns of other communities, while also providing morning exercise and social interaction.

I like the idea a lot.  Almost enough that I would have been willing to give up the one-on-one time with my third-grade girlfriend those many years ago.


Petaluma Urban Chat: After the big build-up to the meeting about City Repair Petaluma in November, it’s hard to believe that another month has passed.  But the monthly meeting of Urban Chat is scheduled for next Tuesday, December 10.

Returning to our regular meeting place and time, we’ll convene at 5:30 at the Aqus Cafe at 2nd and H Streets.  The discussion will begin at 5:45.

For the first time since early summer, we don’t have a speaker scheduled, so we’ll return to our study of “The Smart Growth Manual” by Duany, Speck, and Lydon.  All are welcome.  Even if you haven’t read the book, you should enjoy the discussion.

Holiday Season Blogging: As I noted several posts ago, this week is the beginning of year three of this blog.  Three posts per week for over a hundred weeks.  I still have many topics about which to write.  And I still enjoy the effort.  But the time to write and to polish, especially during the holiday season, can feel insufficient.  So I’m going to try something a little different over the next few weeks

In 2007, I spent two weeks in Venice, Italy, perhaps the most famous car-free city in the world.  During my time there, I took many, many photos and begin assembling my thoughts about being a stranger in a remarkable place.

Unfortunately, upon my return to the North Bay, real life intervened and I didn’t finish cataloguing my photos or writing my thoughts.  I’m now going to impose on your goodwill by doing those tasks here in my blog.

Every Friday post during December, and likely continuing into the New Year, will be my thoughts and photos about Venice, with a particular emphasis on the urbanism lessons to be learned.  My next post will cover trip planning and arrival.

I know that sharing vacation stories and photos is often among the more boorish behaviors possible.  But I’ll try to exceed that low expectation.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


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  2. Growing up I lived two miles from school and as soon as I was allowed to ride my bike to town I favored that over the school bus. I thought getting a ride from your parents was for sissies. And overprotective besides. Beyond that it was exceedingly rare. That was in New England. I shudder to consider all the vehicularly-transported students and all the traffic (much of it hectic and dangerous) around schools in California today. Does the issue have some value as a catalyst for social change?

    Reminiscent of the virtual school bus, NPR had a recent story about "bike trains." A designated conductor conducts a convoy of 5-10 bicycle riders on a specified urban commute route. Safety (and sociability) in numbers, plus another innovation for urbanism!

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