PENDLETON — Washington Elementary School’s parking lot was full Thursday morning, but its bike rack was decidedly not.
It wasn’t just a slow day, either. Of all the school transportation options, Washington Principal Aimee VanNice estimated that 300 students rode the bus, 70 were taken by car, and between 50 to 70 walked.
Only a handful rode their bikes to school.
The Oregon Department of Transportation Safe Routes to School program aims to make going to school friendlier to walkers and cyclists by offering communities planning and funding for pedestrian projects around public schools.
Pendleton School District Superintendent Chris Fritsch said the school system and the city of Pendleton teamed up to apply for a Safe Routes planning grant after the city failed to secure an ODOT grant for infrastructure improvements around schools.
Pendleton got the grant, and as a part of the process, ODOT sent Alta Planning + Design, a Portland firm, to help conduct “walk audits” and community meetings where the community could identify which points at schools were unsafe for walkers and bikers.
On Thursday morning, Alta planning associate Mike Sellinger bundled up and ventured toward the back of Washington to take notes on the bus drop-off zone.
Sellinger seemed impressed at how uncongested and orderly the drop-off area was on Southeast Alexander Avenue, as students were able to get off the bus without having to worry about a growing queue of vehicles behind them.
VanNice later explained that buses used to pick up and drop off in the front of the school. Even though parents and buses each had their own parking lots for student transportation, VanNice said the competition for space on Southeast Byers Avenue meant traffic sometimes backed up all the way to Court Avenue, necessitating a change in stations for the school buses.
Although Sellinger doesn’t have much to note at the bus stop, he notices some potential drawbacks for young pedestrians.
Many of the roadsides opposite the school didn’t have sidewalks, and parts of the intersection of Byers and 12th Street were uneven due to utility cuts.
Sellinger’s colleague, planner Katie Selin, heard from the crossing guard that a lack of crosswalk stripes on the west end of the intersection meant some cars stopped in the crossing path.
Once the walkthrough was complete, Selin solicited feedback from the other participants, which included City Councilor Paul Chalmers, City Manager Robb Corbett, and Byers resident Karen King.
They noticed parents jaywalking with their children across Byers, various blind corners for drivers around the school, and parents taking shortcuts in their car to beat the traffic.
“Our biggest problem is parents failing the expectations we set,” VanNice said.
Beyond the question of safety, Carrie Sampson Samuels, the community wellness director for Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, said making Washington more pedestrian-friendly was a matter of equity.
She said many of the surrounding homes were low-income, and if they didn’t have access to a vehicle, kids had no choice but to walk.
Samuels also requested the city and school district include Nixyaawii Community School in their plans.
Although the charter school just moved into a new facility on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, she said there’s no sidewalks to connect tribal housing with the school.
The city is hoping the Safe Routes to School plan will improve their chances for an ODOT grant for sidewalks along Byers.
City officials would like to have ODOT funding coincide with plans to reconstruct and widen Byers from Southeast Fifth Street to 12th Street.
Before the planning process, the city failed to win a grant for sidewalks on Byers and to repair a staircase that provides pedestrian access from South Hill to Southwest 13th Street near the Pendleton Early Learning Center.
The stairway has been closed since 2015, when a child hurt himself after falling on the deteriorating stairs. Fixing the stairs has a six-figure price tag, and without the money to fix them in the city’s current budget, local officials have been trying to find grants to cover the cost.
Besides the sidewalks and stairs, Fritsch said the other walk audits didn’t reveal any red flags, although there are several areas that need improvement.
Selin said Alta will deliver a list of recommendations for each school in the coming weeks.
Once the recommendations are released, Fritsch said he would like to share them with the public to get input before the final plan.