From new school buses to bike rides, SFUSD close to revamping kid transit

When Illise Villacorta-Alatriste was growing up in sunny Alameda, she would shepherd her younger brother onto an AC Transit bus to shuttle them both to school.

Now 24, Villacorta-Alstriste still hasn’t obtained a driver’s license.

“Sometimes, I wish I knew how to drive, but for the most part it’s a conscious choice,” she said, naming the environment as her main motivation.

As of Sept. 5, Villacorta-Alatriste embarks on a daily brisk and windy ferry commute to the San Francisco Unified School District as their new — and only — transportation fellow, a staffer devoted to studying new transportation options for the district’s 55,600 students.

SFUSD transportation fellow Illise Villacorta-Alatriste. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Her personal transit experience also echoes the ethos of a Board of Education vote in 2015, the approval of a resolution that called on the school district to reduce the percentage of single-family car trips to schools from 45 percent to 30 percent by 2030.

Data shows millennials and other new generations are increasingly turning to transit, walking and bicycling, but the district’s youngest students still rely on their car-driving parents to get to school.

SEE RELATED: Parents push for student transportation without cars

But the school district wants kids to use alternate forms of transit in the name of safety, which would also reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gases, according to the resolution. That work is nearing its most public stage; outreach is set to begin by winter.

Studying and proposing ways to overhaul the SFUSD’s transportation options is ultimately led by a working group of senior school officials, including Nik Kaestner, 41, head of sustainability at the district.

“We are going to ask a lot of questions, do a lot of interviews and find out what parents need or want,” Kaestner told the San Francisco Examiner.

The need to revamp how kids get to school doesn’t just impact families, Kaestner said. A study conducted by Fall Line Analytics, at the behest of The City and Supervisor Katy Tang, found about 57 percent of grade K-5 parents drive their children to school, amounting to at least 60,000 daily miles driven by parents.

That morning congestion as thousands of parents descend on elementary schools clogs San Francisco’s streets daily.

Myriad school district programs take aim at reducing a dependence on car trips, from tutoring middle school students on how to take Muni to walking groups for younger children. However, data shows those programs have yet to make a significant impact.

A student commute study conducted by researchers from UC Berkeley found the number of parents driving kids to school in San Francisco has remained largely flat from 2010 to 2015.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Free Muni for Youth program saw some 36,000 students enroll, reducing transportation’s cost burden on families. The SFMTA also runs “school trippers” — extra buses that run on routes near schools during school commute hours — for 16 middle and high schools in San Francisco, including Marina Middle School and Galileo High School, among others.

Most of those efforts to boost youth Muni ridership target older students, however, who show higher rates of transit ridership — likely, Kaestner said, due to their independence.

It’s the younger students for whom it’s tougher to find alternatives to cars.

“I just had a meeting … with the San Francisco Transit Riders [advocacy group] and they really want to push this idea that families should consider the bus,” Kaestner said. “There is a big hurdle to overcome to make people feel comfortable.”

SFUSD Director of Sustainability Nik Kaestner. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)

There are also barriers other than safety, he said. For instance, though Free Muni for Youth may ensure a ride is free for a child, a parent accompanying that child still must pay.

Addressing transportation may not be the only way to reduce car trips, Kaestner added. Boosting access to afterschool programs throughout the district may lead to a reduction in car trips because that child would not be driven to a program elsewhere in The City.

“Sometimes, it’s too easy to focus on the quick solution,” Kaestner said. “We want to do a bit more research and find out other ways those trips are generated.”

Although how the school district decides to get kids out of cars and into other modes of transportation, or walking or cycling, will come from winter outreach with parents, he said he’s already heard one preference loud and clear:

Parents wants yellow school buses to be revived.

As many as 200 yellow school buses ferried students to school in the 1970s, but the buses effectively vanished from The City’s transportation infrastructure in 2010, when the SFUSD made cuts due to the recession, district officials previously said.

The fleet’s some 25 buses serve about 2,000 general education students today.

“I have a feeling,” Kaestner said, that staff’s proposal to reduce single-family car trips will involve “something around school buses.”

In the working group’s final proposal, reviving yellow school buses may merely be proposed, he added, “more than we know where the money is to do this. We have heard anecdotally that parents prefer putting kids on a school bus, a tried and true way of getting kids to school for decades.”

Those proposals are tentatively aimed at coming before the Board of Education in May, Kaestner said, at which point Villacorta-Alatriste will move on from the district.

By the time the group’s work is over, however, the way San Francisco’s kids roll to school may change for decades to come.

S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Laura Waxmann contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of SFUSD transportation fellow Illise Villacorta-Alatriste.

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