Why Don’t Children Walk to School Anymore? Crisis and Opportunity at Jefferson Middle School

Aerial view of Jefferson Middle School (Google Maps)
Aerial view of Jefferson Middle School (Google Maps)

Jefferson Middle School (JMS) has a problem. Every weekday, in the morning and the afternoon, a dangerous traffic situation is created as parent pick up and drop off their children.

This problem is not unique to JMS; this situation occurs at almost every grade school in the country every day. It is unique in that JMS is located in a neighborhood that was designed pre-automobile dominance. It was built in an era when most students walked to school. It has great pedestrian connections to the neighborhood, featuring 3 passageways that connect directly to the school grounds.

Unfortunately, it appears that most students no longer walk to Jefferson anymore.

APS: Solving Traffic Problems by Building a New Road
Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) has proposed a solution to the traffic problem: a 24 ft. road with two 12 ft. lanes to encircle the school grounds. This proposal can be found on page 18 of the Girard Boulevard Complete Streets Master Plan. According to this document (emphasis mine), “There is approximately $572,000 budgeted for a project to build a loop road starting from the north end of the parking lot abutting Girard on the west side of the school, traveling along the north property line and then south along the east property line to Lomas Boulevard… It was approved by public vote in a 2010 bond election, but has since been put off until 2015. No designer or engineer has been hired yet, nor have any related studies been started. It will be paved, and will most likely be one-way, but they are not sure which way that will be (Lomas to Girard Boulevards, or Girard to Lomas Boulevards).

The three neighborhoods surrounding this property, North Campus, Summit Park and Nob Hill, recently discovered that APS is actually planning on breaking ground on the road at the end of May 2013. APS says they are fast tracking the project because the current traffic situation is a huge danger to students. The neighborhoods, and especially the neighbors who have backyards adjacent to the property, are not happy. Many meetings have been held in the past two weeks about this project and an article about the project appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on Wednesday, May 22.

Framing the Issue: What Can $572,000 Buy?
The debates about this project have been both fascinating and disturbing. Few neighbors or parents want this project to happen. However, no one is proposing an alternative. This is possibly because the parents who do not want this project are also the parents who are driving their children a 1/2 mile to the school everyday, feeding the problem.

Within the most recent APS bond, $572,000 was specifically allocated for this project. A total of $1,456,865 has been allocated from the APS bond to pay for the entire project, which includes construction of a grass field, a track and drainage improvements.

Since this money is specifically set aside for this project, it’s unlikely it can be used for other infrastructure improvements. But just for fun, what could we do with $1,000,000 in bicycle/pedestrian improvements?

Let’s first look at the Lomas/Girard intersection, the heart of the traffic congestion beast:

Aerial view of the Lomas/Girard intersection, looking east (Google Maps)
Aerial view of the Lomas/Girard intersection, looking east (Google Maps)

Currently, this intersection is dangerous and unpleasant. The crosswalks are worn, the crossing times are too short and the speeds on Girard are far in excess of the posted speed limit. According to North Carolina Department of Transportation, an “enhanced crosswalk with special stencils, raised platforms, or special signage” costs ~$5,000 (NCDOT). For about $20,000, the City of Albuquerque could enhance all four crosswalks on this intersection, making them far more visible and therefore safer. The city could also extend the amount of time given to cross the street, which would cost nothing. The image below is an example of what this could look like, with the “before” on the left and the “after” on the right:

An example of how some cheap fixes to the Lomas/Girard intersection would look
An example of how some cheap fixes to the Lomas/Girard intersection would look

Let’s take this a step further.

From the same NCDOT document (pg. E-3), a project is described: “East Blvd. Pedscape, including repaving for a road diet from 4 motor vehicle lanes to 2 motor vehicle lanes, 2 bicycle lanes, a turn lane, improved ADA curb cuts and crosswalks with safety islands.
Length = ½ Mile.
Final Cost = $1,050,000
($398 per linear foot)
” (NCDOT).

Guess what else is a ½ mile?

Girard between Central Avenue and Frontier Ave.

The graphic below shows what could happen in that segment:

A typical "road diet"
A typical “road diet”

But Wait! There’s More!
All of the fixes proposed in this post are not new; they are described in detail in both the Girard Boulevard Complete Streets Master Plan (specifically pg. 29) and the North Campus and Summit Park Neighborhood Transportation Management Plan. Both of these plans were created with a huge amount of public involvement, specifically involving the very neighbors who are protesting this project! They seem to have forgotten about these documents since neither of them have been mentioned.

Why Should We Care?
The chart below describes lays out quite clearly why Girard needs a road diet:

Speed of Moving Vehicle vs. Chance of Survival
Speed of Moving Vehicle vs. Chance of Survival

The high speeds on the current configuration discourage walking. With one lane in each direction, the speeds would drop dramatically.

The other problem with this plan is induced demand. It’s quite simple: more roads/lanes = more people driving. However, induced demand works both ways: more bike lanes/routes/trails = more people cycling.

SOLUTION: Short Term + Long Term
At this point in the process, APS is ready to break ground. The plans are ready and APS is reluctant to change them. Since the bond money is allocated to specific projects, it’s unlikely that the money could be used for bicycle or pedestrian improvements.

At this point, only the City of Albuquerque (CABQ) can prevent this project. APS needs CABQ to provide a permit to create a 24 ft. curb cut on Lomas for the road. APS has not yet applied for the permits so there is hypothetically time.

If enough citizens call their city councilor and tell CABQ to withhold the permit, it may happen.

The other thing the city could do is use emergency or discretionary funds to fast-track the proposed improvements to Girard. Combined with an education program at JMS for the coming school year + a comprehensive bike/ped encouragement program (EX: the Walking School Bus), there might not be a traffic problem after all. A Walking School Bus (groups of students walking together + a chaperone) would allay the constant parental fear of sexual predators. If enough students and parents decide to walk or bike to school, the need for this road would completely disappear.

Take Action!

A great federal program called Safe Routes to School has been doing amazing work in communities across America. Click here for more information on this topic.

If you care about this issue, now is the time to take action. Contact your city councilors by clicking this link.

A website has also been created by members of the neighborhood in protest of this plan. View it by clicking here.

Thank you for reading! Please comment below if you have anything to add to the conversation.


8 thoughts on “Why Don’t Children Walk to School Anymore? Crisis and Opportunity at Jefferson Middle School”

  1. As a parent of a middle schooler (Wilson) and an elementary student (Bandelier), I too am guilty of driving my kids to school far too often than necessary. Growing up in the 60’s & 70’s, I can not remember my parents EVER driving me to school. I grew up in Southern California, land of the auto. But from first grade on, we walked, biked, or took the bus to school Period. I think we pamper our kids… out of fear of the unknown “bad guys” and other safety issues. But I think learning to navigate our urban landscape is a skill that is best started early. I’m going to start insisting my kids learn to get to school on their own… next year!

    1. Brent, this is the refrain we keep hearing: “I NEVER got a ride to school but I drive my kids to school.”

      I talked to someone who went to JMS in the 1980’s and remembers the parent pickup lot never being filled because everyone walked, biked or took transit.

      I’m happy to hear that you are trying to break the cycle! Safe Routes to School, which I linked to at the bottom of the blog, is a great resource.

  2. One thing that APS could do to address too many parents driving their children to school is to make it incredibly difficult to change districts. Yes, many parents drive their children from that neighborhood to school (which is criminal, IMO), but many more drive their children from far-flung neighborhoods because APS has allowed that district change. They need to stop it. Also, by making it easier for people to drop off their children by car, they do nothing to encourage bike/walk to school programs. People like to do what is easy. Make it easier to bike/walk and people will do that.

  3. What ever happened to the school bus? Or are we talking about people who live really, really close?

    Also, I agree Girard is a death trap, why is it four lanes between Central and Lomas (well three in some places) only to shrink back down just north of Lomas and then unceremoniously end at Indian School? I mean, there can’t possibly be that much traffic on it. Also, I hate that hideous six foot tall metal fence they put up. I know, people having the temerity to cross the street right in front of their house. Also, can something be done about Girard and Campus? That’s a huge clusterfuck of an intersection. I like your idea, but why not take the central turn lane out? If it’s good enough for Carlisle and Washington, it’s good enough for Girard.

    1. In this case, I am talking about people who live within one mile which should hypothetically be a significant percentage of students. The school bus also has a role to fill for student who live a bit further.

      I can’t fathom why it was ever converted to four lanes. The traffic counts are extremely low; according to the MRCOG traffic count data (http://www.mrcog-nm.gov/images/stories/pdf/maps_and_data/traffic_flow/tfm11urban.pdf), this segment sees under 10,000 cars/day.

      The fix I propose in the article is a short-term solution; it’s easy to re-stripe a road. In the long run, I imagine the center turn lane would come out. It would be similar to Lead/Coal: one lane removed in order to build wide buffered sidewalks + a comfortable bicycle lane.

      Thank you for the feedback!

  4. The neighborhood supports both plans, and City is moving forward with the Girard Complete Streets plan, both of which I sponsored. (Note that the Girard plan is still a draft, not an adopted plan.) Our City Council planning consultants from the Girard team have been engaged to work with APS toward an alternative solution. However, APS is very resistant to changing their plan. JMS parents have been organized to lobby the City to allow the project as-is, designed by a civil engineer with no input from professional planners or traffic engineers. I am simply asking that a thorough and integrated design process be implemented, and that the City not approve the drive pad work until it has been.

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