In Albany, Kids Hop Aboard the 'Walking School Bus'

On Wednesday mornings, just before 8 o’clock, Ken McCroskey dons a reflective, neon yellow vest, leaves his Albany home with daughter Laurel in tow and together they head to the corner of Santa Fe Avenue and Thousand Oaks Boulevard where they will collect several other young passengers.

There is no vehicle, but McCroskey is the "bus driver," and he will pick up as many as 20 riders as the "walking school bus" makes its way down Santa Fe to Marin Elementary School about a half mile away. A few other parents may climb aboard and, of course, a leashed dog or two, so that by the time they arrive at school, the colorful bus stretches for half a block.

The walking school bus is an initiative by Transform, a non-profit group that promotes public transit and walkable communities in Alameda County. TransForm organizes walking school buses to increase kids’ physical activity while decreasing parents' reliance on cars to ferry them back and forth to school.

“One reason we promote the walking school bus is the obesity epidemic,” said Transform's Rachel Davidman. “By no means are we claiming that walking to and from school will cure that, but it’s another opportunity for kids to be physical, to get going and get a healthy start to the day. Also when we talk about emissions reductions, it has an impact on asthma. Look at traffic congestion around school zones.”

On April 20, parent Claudia Thio joined McCroskey as a "co-driver," wearing a yellow vest and leading the group as he brought up the rear, watching for stragglers and being vigilant at crosswalks.

Thio has been part of the walking school bus for three years, along with her daugher, Cara. She likes the camaraderie and the safety in numbers at certain intersections. “I don’t let my kids cross alone, especially at Solano and Marin,” she said. “Even with a crossing guard, it’s pretty hairy.”

The Marin bus only gathers on Wednesday, she explained, because it is the one day of the week that all students are on the same schedule. The bus only travels one-way; many kids take have activities after school.

The distance between school and home is the main factor in whether kids walk. Surveys TransForm conducted last year at Cornell, another Albany elementary school, revealed that 75-85 percent of kids who live a quarter of a mile or less away walked to and from school. At one half-mile to a mile from school, just 50 percent of kids said they walked; and over one mile, none of them walked. Surveys of parents found that their three chief concerns about letting their kids walk or bike to school involved traffic safety.

Safe Routes to Schools has been more successful in Albany than in some other places, said Davidman, because it is a middle-class community with schools near where kids live and a high level of continuous parental involvement. McCroskey, for example, was laid off from his job, has time to invest in many community activities.

“We have wonderful parent champions at our lower-income schools, but there is higher turnover among parents,” said Davidman. “But the need is great. I went to Parker Elementary [in Oakland] with my colleagues one day and saw the neighborhood. It’s not right that elementary kids should walk through an area with people on the street drinking liquor. Yet that is reality for some of our schools.”

Right now, 70 schools in Alameda County participate to a greater or lesser degree in the national Safe Routes to School program, with a walking school bus or a monthly event called Walk and Roll to School Day. The goal is to expand to 20 more schools. TransForm receives its primary funding through the county from Measure B, a voter-approved half-cent sales tax, 5 percent of which must be spent on bicycle and pedestrian improvements, said Nora Cody, executive director.

Meanwhile, Ken McCroskey hopes to make the streets around Marin Elementary even safer for students in his role of chair of the city’s traffic safety committee and the co-chair of the school PTA traffic safety committee. “There was a kid hit about three years ago and some parents grazed recently, and I was almost taken down by a bus.”