How a high school senior from San Leandro transformed his commute to school – and made his community safer in the process

Bianca Taylor Headshot

For Leo Martinez, the hardest part of high school isn’t algebra or English – it’s crossing the street safely to get to first period.

When he started his freshman year at San Lorenzo High School, Leo rode the bus from his home in San Leandro to and from school because his parents were unable to drop him off before they left for work in the morning. But this routine wasn’t necessarily safe or efficient. “The bus was crowded, late, and just unreliable,” Leo explains. To top it off, the school’s bus stop at Ashland Avenue was located under a poorly lit freeway overpass with no sidewalks, making it virtually impossible to walk the few remaining blocks to school without walking in the shoulder (which is technically illegal) and getting honked at by speeding cars. 

From bus to bike, but not much better

The following year, Leo got a bike and started riding the 4-plus miles to school with a small group of his friends. Although he liked it better than riding the bus, it wasn’t any safer. On the huge boulevards that border San Lorenzo High, there were no designated bike lanes to protect him and his friends from the busy traffic. “My friend fell off his bike five times because cars would rear-end us,” Leo says. “There was a lack of bike lanes but also a complete lack of driver awareness – cars sped past us a few inches away from hitting us and they never got tickets.”

During his junior year, Leo decided to join the Safe Routes to Schools program to get involved in making his commute to school safer – not just for him, but for all of his classmates who bused, walked, or biked down Ashland Avenue.  Leo learned about improvements that the County was working on around San Lorenzo High School, and challenges they faced including sufficient funding for infrastructure improvements.

Without safe streets, “there is no guarantee that students will walk and bike to school” 

For Leo, being able to ride a bike or walk to school safely is about more than arriving at class on time – it can help kids lead healthier, active, more social lives. “Biking to school allows people to be active at least twice a day, which is important especially since [many] students lack physical activity,” he points out. “But there is no guarantee that students will walk and bike to school if they can’t do it safely. If they can’t get there safely, it actually discourages them.”

Leo had never before considered himself a bicyclist, or even an advocate, but as he learned more about the dangers that kids across California face on their way to school, he was determined to make an impact in his own community. Thanks to a partnership between Leo’s class at San Lorenzo High School and the Safe Routes program, Alameda County Public Works has applied for funding to redesign Ashland Avenue with new sidewalks, street lights, and signage.

Leo’s story is just one of the many reasons why we need Governor Brown to sign SB 1151.  

SB 1151 will increase the amount of money in California’s Active Transportation Program (ATP) fund by charging drivers an additional fine for committing a moving violation in a school zone. This money will go directly towards making our school zones safer for kids in all communities, but especially in low-income and disadvantaged communities. SB 1151 will bring pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, well-lit streets, bike lanes, and crosswalks to neighborhoods that don’t have them, making it easier for kids to get out of cars and on the move to school safely. 

Last week, SB 1151 cleared its final legislative hurdle, winning unanimous approval from the state Assembly. Governor Brown’s signature is the final step to making SB 1151 and making California a safe place for kids like Leo to get to school. 

Email Governor Brown today and tell him to support SB 1151.

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.