On the annual Walk to School day at Woodside Elementary School, about 85 percent of the students (a little more than 310 students) walk or ride bikes to school. This annual exercise has included a "walking bus," in which students line up as if they were riding a bus and walk to school in formation.
There is safety in numbers. On most days, perhaps reflecting the widely held perception that the current routes to school are unsafe -- particularly along Woodside Road -- the percentage of children going to school on their own falls to about 8 percent, according to a recent Safe Routes To School audit. The other 92 percent get rides from their parents, and usually one student per vehicle, the audit says.
The safety concerns are at least a decade old, said parent and community volunteer Millo Fenzi as he addressed the Town Council at its Dec. 10 meeting. The council, having heard another rounds of pleas from the community to fix this problem, directed staff to move ahead on the Woodside Road Safety Improvement Project, first proposed in September 2012.
Action would have begun in 2012, but the road is a state highway and the involvement of the California Department of Transportation tends to slow things down, newly elected Mayor Dave Burow said. The $215,600 project, funded with state and county money, would address five of the safety audit's 18 recommendations:
■ Prohibit parking on the south side of Woodside Road "in proximity to the school's four driveways and the crosswalks."
■ Install crosswalk warning signs equipped with very bright warning lights ahead of the two crosswalks across Woodside Road.
■ Mark the crosswalks with high-visibility materials.
■ Narrow by 1 foot the width of the traffic lanes on the approaches to the school so as to allow a walkway and bike path on the north side of the road.
■ Resurface parts of the path on the south side of Woodside Road that pass the school. This step is potentially controversial. While the new surface must comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, horse traffic is common. The Trails Committee expressed concern that horses be taken into consideration in choosing a new surface.
On a unanimous vote, the council directed staff to refer the Safe Routes audit to the Circulation Committee and return with a timeline and list of tasks needed to "move forward expeditiously."
Council members also directed that the audit's other 12 recommendations for improving safety be folded into an ongoing community effort to consider the Town Center's evolution over the next 20 years, the so-called Town Center Area Plan.
A dissenting voice
When this project came up for extended discussion in March 2012, Councilman Tom Shanahan argued against accepting outside funding. "We see it as a 'free' crosswalk provided by grants from some combination of county, state and federal government programs," he said at the time. Woodside families pay a little, but so do families in "East Palo Alto, Detroit and other places. ... Spending without having to tax is a fun but very dangerous business."
At the Dec. 10 meeting, Mr. Shanahan spoke again. "I don't think any concern, even child safety, can be an absolute," he said. Child safety is one of many priorities before the council, and a focus on the Woodside Road project should not elevate it to "some kind of a super priority," he said. He asked staff about crossing guards, including when they were on duty and whether they themselves pressed buttons to activate warning lights.
Mr. Shanahan did not respond to a request for an interview.
The children in the audience spoke first. Christopher Fenzi asked for the trail behind Bucks restaurant to be flatter and more negotiable in places.
Georgia Hutchinson read from her letter "on behalf of the Woodside population." The town's paucity of crosswalks "is a big problem because as great as the paths are, there are no crosswalks to the other side of the street," she said. "That makes my walk to school, and many other peoples' walk to school, dangerous. You should be heartbroken because people in my neighborhood stop walking to my school because of safety issues."
School board member Marc Tarpenning called the current warning lights "invisible" and in an apparent reference to Mr. Shanahan, noted that the crosswalks are used more than twice a day. One crosswalk is used continuously by students between the end of the school day and sunset, by adults and equestrians, and by weekend users of campus facilities. Safety improvements are "for the whole town even if it's called safe routes to school," Mr. Tarpenning said. "It is really safe routes to downtown."
The improvements, said Woodside Road resident Bob Page, are meant "to help us feel safe in walking around and they're not just to help kids walk safely to school. In general, the pedestrians are very poorly represented in any discussion before the Town Council."
One parent said he was offended by Mr. Shanahan's comments. "There's nothing more important to local government than that we don't have to have a memorial sign (after a fatal accident)," he said. "The kids, all of us who are out there, we are the future of Woodside."
Calling the crossing of Whiskey Hill and Mountain Home roads "a disaster," Mr. Fenzi said he would "entreat, beg, plead" for the council to move forward quickly. "You have a great opportunity to do something of real value to the community." At this point, his voice broke. "Sorry, I get wound up," he said. "I've been doing this for 10 years."