Child Safety Goes Back on the Road

Parents Bring Political Will to Find Traffic Solutions

As recently as 15 years ago, biking to Montecito Union School was not only accepted as common practice, but it was largely encouraged by parents and administrators. Over time, however, this has changed, as the once mighty procession of kid bikers making the daily journey to and from school has been replaced by a cavalcade of cars that, on many afternoons, creates untenable traffic snarls on neighboring streets. Often, Montecito Union’s bike cage, with a capacity for about 40 bicycles, sits entirely barren.

“It gets very hard to encourage or promote students biking to school when you’re largely convinced that it’s not safe,” said Dick Douglas, Montecito Union’s superintendent.

The same can be seen at crosstown Cold Spring School, where a recent survey of parents showed that only about 20% of students walk or bike to school. The main reason? Parents believe the streets, especially Sycamore Canyon Road, are just too dangerous for their kids.

In recent weeks, school parents and administrators have made bold overtures in an attempt to get cars off the road and bikes back on the pavement. Though past efforts to stem traffic increases have been largely unsuccessful, parents say they’re more determined this time to find new solutions to some of Montecito’s oldest and most persistent problems. And people are listening.

Identifying a Problem

A mobility survey performed by the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation (COAST), an advocate for alternative transportation, showed that 9% of Montecito Union students walk or bike to school, a figure that is lower than the national average of 13%. One reason is that Montecito Union sits on San Ysidro Road, one of this town’s busiest streets where auto speeding has been identified as a problem that’s gotten out of hand. Attempts to stem San Ysidro speeding have been made, including a solar-powered speed meter that school administrators believe just isn’t doing enough.

“It’s better than it used to be and it’s still messy and scary,” said Principal Kris Bergstrom of the traffic situation.

Same goes for Cold Spring School officials, who worked with the County to install a speed meter on Cold Spring Road and convinced Caltrans to bring a stop sign to Sycamore Canyon Road. Still, the changes haven’t been enough to assuage parental concern. Kids are told to stay away from Sycamore Canyon Road and even other smaller byways that leave little room on the side of the road for walking or biking.

“Kids are being taught that it’s difficult to get anywhere by foot and we want to change that,” said Tracey Willfong Singh, a Cold Spring parent who is also chair of the school’s Safe Routes to School committee.

Finding Solutions

At Montecito Union, parents and administrators have identified a three-pronged approach to solving traffic problems. This includes carpooling, bus transportation and finding ways for students to bike or walk to school.

The carpooling method has seen good results at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, where 52% of students live in Carpinteria.

“Many of our parents already do their own work. They take it upon themselves to coordinate in their neighborhoods,” said Principal Karen Regan.

Montecito Union is also looking into a bus system for kids who live in the farthest reaches of the school district. But officials may be running into costs that could prove prohibitive if not enough students participate in the program. One 20-passenger bus operating three times a day runs at $40,000 per year.

“When you start to think about it, it’s an expensive proposition,” said Raymond Delegarde, vice-president of West Coast operations for Student Transportation of America.

So far, the walking and biking solution seems the most promising and has garnered the most interest. Participants in the effort are realizing that the best way to make roads safer is to create opportunities for kids to actually use them, including a walking path. However, this would require convincing many Montecito residents to eliminate road encroachments, areas that are part of the public right of way but that are often occupied by mailboxes, utility poles, vegetation or other impediments. Governments have the authority to clear out these areas, but this proposition can often carry some political and legal risk. School parents and officials from Montecito’s two public schools are collaborating aggressively on this front and are working with County and State leaders in an effort that’s gaining momentum.

“People have tried this before but they’ve lacked the political will to do it,” said Stephen Murdoch, one of the Montecito Union parents spearheading the effort. “You have to convince people that this is the right thing to do.”

Clearing a Path

Montecito Union parents are thinking about approaching San Ysidro Road residents hoping to convince them to clear out their encroachments. “The idea is not to come in and ruin their landscape, but we can work with them” to reach an accord that suits both parties, said Vicki Harbison, a first grade teacher at Montecito Union.

Still, such overtures can be risky as residents have gone to lengths to doggedly protect those easements, even threatening lawsuits. “People don’t often realize that County right of way is not just pavement,” said Bill Palladini, president of the Montecito Association who last year served as the homeowners group’s traffic committee co-chair. “But it’s really hard to come back to someone after twenty years and tell them to rip out their bushes.”

While removing road encroachments is a “serious challenge,” Palladini said the solution requires government officials to step in and enforce the law.

Cold Spring parents have asked the County to step in and work to clear out easements on backroad routes to school, including Paso Robles Drive. First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal has been receptive to these entreaties, saying he’s given his “unequivocal commitment” to address the issue. Carbajal has met with parents and administrators from both Cold Spring and Montecito Union and said in a telephone interview Monday he would help them try to secure funding through Safe Routes to School, a state program that gives grants for a wide range of projects, including pedestrian footpaths. Costs for a walking path on a nearly one-mile stretch of San Ysidro Road could be upwards of a few hundred thousand dollars, County officials have said.

Despite his assurances, Carbajal has also been adamant that traffic problems cannot be solved unless parents do some self-policing.

“It’s been said and proven that parents of students are responsible for speeding on streets that neighbor schools,” he said. “As parents, we need to drop off our kids to school in a manner that’s as safe as possible.”

On a state level, Montecito child safety is an issue that has captured the attention of Assemblyman Pedro Nava, who is chair of the Assembly Transportation Commission. This legislation cycle, Nava is putting through a bicycle bill that requires cars to remain at least three feet from bikes at all times, and another proposal, Assembly Bill 321, that seeks expansion of school speed zones. This is Nava’s second attempt at passing the bicycle safety bill, which opponents blocked last year by arguing that motorists should know to drive between the lines. But Nava says this legislation would be key in protecting kids like Jake Boysel, the 12-year-old Santa Barbara boy who was killed last September when he was struck by a car while he was bicycling to school.

“I’m a great believer in common sense,” Nava said. “However, there are some areas that are so severe that the state has some role in.”

While Cold Spring parents vie for state funding, Nava has been working with Caltrans to bring low-cost solutions. “that we can implement in a relatively short time.” During a meeting with Caltrans on Tuesday, Nava said he and state transportation officials agreed to clear a lot of lower tree canopies on streets neighboring Cold Spring School, including Barker Pass and Ashley Road. Caltrans will also be moving school zone signs farther west on Sycamore Canyon Road to improve notification and will be relocating parking signs on the same road to improve visibility.

For school parents, these present early signs of improvement, though some people remain cautious and patient knowing that similar past efforts have gone by the wayside.

Said Don Miller, a Cold Spring parent involved in the child safety drive: “It’s a slow-moving process, it’s like watching a glacier move. You just have to be long-winded and have a long-range plan.”