When the school bells ring at Sandoval Elementary, Hernandez Middle School, and Solorio High School, hundreds of students pour from the three buildings, nestled on either side of 55th Street in Chicago.
Many of their parents sit waiting in cars. It doesn’t take long for traffic in the entire area to come to a near standstill.
For many in the Chicago region, the start of a new school year marks the beginning of another season: nine months of traffic headaches.
“When it’s time for dismissal, it’s just—it’s crazy,” says one safety patrol officer as he troops through puddles to usher children from one side of the street to the other at the intersection of 55th Street and St. Louis. (He asked that we not print his name, since he didn’t have permission to speak.) Cars honk from blocks away. “Every afternoon it’s a big headache,” he says.
People block the alley, park illegally. People park in places that block the buses. “Some parents even park on top of the railroad crossing, on top of the sidewalk,” he says.
Sarah Jindra, who for years worked as a WBEZ traffic reporter and is now with WGN-TV, says traffic reporters don’t have a good way to gauge traffic on the city’s smaller streets--or even on larger arterial streets. But the return to classes is definitely noticeable on the expressways and Lake Shore Drive. “The morning commutes are lighter in the summer when everybody is off of school, and then it does get a little bit heavier for those morning commutes when kids go back to school, and obviously the teachers and parents are more on the roads as well.”
Chicago Public Schools is the state’s second-largest employer, with 40,000 employees going to and from work when school is in session.
A generation ago, many more Chicago kids went to school closer to home. Now, it’s common for the district’s nearly 400,000 students to travel past 5, 10, 20 schools to get to their school. Just a fraction of CPS students receive a ride on a yellow school bus (this year it’s about 5.5 percent); many travel on public transit. But others are being driven by mom, dad, a neighbor or relative.
Nationwide, the percentages of kids who walk or bike to school have plummeted in recent decades--replaced with a car ride. In 1969, 41 percent of U.S. children walked or biked to school; by 2001, that number was 13 percent. Some 55 percent of kids get driven to school or drive themselves. That’s up from just 20 percent a generation ago. (A 2009 study found that more than half of elementary school children in the U.S. now get a car ride to school.) The trends have raised concerns about the environment, children’s health—and traffic.
Consuelo Jimenez lives just a half block from Sandoval, Hernandez and Solorio schools. She says when school is in session, the traffic jams at entry and dismissal times determine the rhythm of her day--when she goes out, when she comes home, even whether her home nurse can visit.
She says parents treat her alley like another street--with cars parked along the garages and drivers completely ignoring the “one way” sign in their efforts to avoid the jam-packed streets, where traffic sits for at least a half hour after dismissal.
“Sometimes we can’t enter our garage because they’re parked there,” says Jimenez.
“On my husband’s days off, if we’re out and notice we’ll be arriving home at 3 p.m., we say, ‘No, we won’t be able to go home.’ We’ll go the store to wait for the traffic to let up.”
Jimenez says lots of parents live nearby—but they still pick their kids up in cars. “People are too lazy sometimes to walk even three blocks,” she says.
Parent Johnny Gonzalez was picking up his stepkids this week at Sandoval and Hernandez; he said he lives close by--but he comes by car because he’s driving home from work anyway. “I just come straight from work and pick them up, or their mom comes straight from work.”
Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Claffey says the agency hasn’t calculated whether traffic is worse when school’s in session, or where the worst spots in the city might be.
“Our big priority is to get drivers to slow down when they’re around schools, to look out for the little people who are coming and going, as well as the big people.”
Thus, the city’s 20 mile-an-hour speed limit when children are present. Though that’s almost unnecessary along many streets near schools—where traffic is barely moving anyway.
Linda Lutton is a WBEZ education reporter. Follow her at @WBEZeducation