Proponents of Complete Streets were disappointed that the Laguna Beach Unified School District declined their invitation to be part of Walk and Roll to School Day, Oct. 6.
Other school districts and cities in Orange County promoted the event with special chaperones for the kids, banners and the general feeling that this was a worthwhile activity, good for the environment and for the health of the students, many of whom have a too-sedentary lifestyle.
In San Juan Capistrano, for instance, parents got out and accompanied kids on walks to schools. Other cities also got on the bandwagon. In L.A., the week was capped with a "take-back-the-streets" event on Sunday in which major downtown thoroughfares were cordoned off and only bicyclists were permitted, with hundreds in attendance, including some of Laguna's avid cycling community.
How could Walk and Roll to School Day be ignored in Laguna, which arguably boasts some of the most active environmentalists around? The reason given by school officials: It's just not safe to walk or bike to school here.
Les Miklosy, who heads the Environmental Committee's Complete Streets Task Force — a group that aims to put more bicycles on city streets and promote pedestrianism — was not happy that his invitation for the district to participate in the event was rebuffed. Miklosy wants to get people to give up their cars in favor of human-powered transport, but this didn't fly with the district.
In a Sept. 22 letter to Miklosy, Norma Shelton, the district's Asst. Supt. for Business Services, wrote:
"The administrators have discussed the [Walk and Roll to School Week/Day] event and what ways the district might participate. However, the main theme of the event causes us the most concern.
"The School District provides transportation to students, not just as a convenience, but as a safety issue. Many of the streets in Laguna Beach do not provide a safe route from our students' residences to our campuses. Therefore, although we may agree with elements of the event, we feel it would encourage an unsafe activity."
Miklosy says he was frustrated that the district rebuffed his invitation after weeks of mulling it over. "The whole nation is doing this," he said. "Michelle Obama is endorsing walking and biking to school."
Even if not all kids in the far-flung district participated, "Neighborhood kids could walk or bike to school," he said.
But that's not how the district sees it.
When you think about it, Laguna Beach's elementary schools are pretty inaccessible for many students. El Morro Elementary, in fact, isn't in the city at all, but surrounded by a state park with no homes within shouting, or bicycling, distance. That's why the school is inundated with vehicles during morning and afternoon rush hours.
Kids from South Laguna are sent all the way to El Morro, north of the city limits. The idea of sending flocks of kids out on bicycles on the Coast Highway with 50 mph traffic would send shivers down the spines of most parents.
Top of the World Elementary might be an easy jaunt for kids from the immediate area, but kids from the "flatlands" would find it to be a quite a hike — especially with a heavy backpack. Riding a bike up those steep streets would be pretty tough in the morning; riding downhill would be hazardous.
Laguna Beach High School is in the middle of a dense neighborhood, but it draws kids from all over the district, which includes Newport Coast and parts of Aliso Viejo. How are kids from those areas supposed to hoof it in time to make their first period class? And again, with a heavy backpack. As for bicycling, would you want your kid to ride El Toro and Laguna Canyon roads during peak travel times?
Unfortunately, the school district is right: It's just not safe or practicable in Laguna Beach for most kids to walk or roll to school.
But Miklosy is also right: In some neighborhoods, kids could walk or bike to school. But that's not a lot of kids.
Demographics, politics and economics have incrementally eliminated the neighborhood school. In Laguna Beach, the old Aliso elementary school in South Laguna was closed down years ago due to lack of enrollment. Now kids who would have used that school travel all the way past the north city limits to El Morro.
Shelton reiterates these issues in a response to an e-mail from the Coastline Pilot:
"Our district is committed to teaching 'lifelong fitness' and has robust physical education and athletic programs. However, in Laguna there are few sidewalks, winding roads with blind corners and a considerable distance for our students to travel and we cannot endorse walking or biking to school so much so that, at considerable cost (parents pay a portion), we provide busing for the elementary schools and middle school."
In other words, the district has determined that it makes better sense for kids to be transported by vehicle.
All these factors make it less and less likely that in Laguna Beach very many kids will ever be able to get to school any other way than by bus or automobile. Until that changes, the Complete Streets Task Force will probably find themselves screaming into the wind to try to get the school district on board with endorsing the idea of walking and rolling to school.
But the task force, undaunted, plans to ask the district to participate next year.
"This town is saturated with automobiles," Miklosy said. He also notes that, despite the busing option, many parents still bring their kids to school by private vehicle, further adding to the congestion on city streets.
No argument there.
CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.