When Missing the Bus Is a Matter of Life and Death

In Our Rural San Joaquin Valley Town, Getting to School on Foot Is the Toughest Part of the Day

We live in Planada, California, a small, unincorporated town of 4,500 people nine miles into the croplands outside Merced. In December 2012, we joined a youth group here organized by the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program that meets every Friday after school. Although Jonathan is only 14 and Uriel is 13, we’ve become regulars at county planning meetings: We want to figure out how to make Planada’s streets safe.

It’s a real problem if Jonathan is late to school: He starts thinking about taking chances crossing Plainsburg Road, which runs between his house and Cesar E. Chavez Middle School. School is just a few blocks away from home, but Plainsburg has two fast lanes of traffic, and you really have to open your eyes and pay attention to make it. Before crossing, Jonathan looks both ways and also behind to see if any cars are turning right. If he has time, he can wait for the best moment. But if he’s already late, he tries to cross as soon as possible to avoid getting marked tardy. After three tardies, you get an hour of afterschool detention every time you’re late. He’ll run to the middle lane, look again, then run to the other side.

Cars are supposed to slow down to 45 miles per hour in Planada, but often they’re speeding up to leave town in the mornings. About six years ago, Uriel saw a child get hit and dragged under a car. They never found the driver, and the child ended up with only one arm.

Uriel lives two miles from school, in Section 8 housing apartments in the middle of the almond and fig orchards. Most days, he takes the bus, but if he misses it, he has to cross Route 140 and walk down Plainsburg Road to get to school. There are no sidewalks, and along the sides of the road there’s nothing but mud and orchards. People will throw things from their cars, like cans of soda, at people who are walking or riding bikes. Early in the harvest season, for three or four months, there are bee boxes on the side of the road and bees flying everywhere. It’s impossible to ride a bike beside the road or in it because of broken glass, rocks, and uneven dirt. And because the cops never visit, cars are going at least 15 miles over the speed limit.

We are young, yes, but old enough to know that traffic is dangerous. Either of us could get hurt any day; eventually, someone will get hurt. In Planada, cars are important, and trains are important, but kids get the feeling that they’re not important. Because the streets are dangerous, people don’t go outside much. If we ask our mothers if we can go outside, they’ll say no—because of the traffic or because it’s too dark. There are no streetlights in Planada.

Kids and adults get used to staying inside, which makes it hard to exercise; obesity is a problem in town. And because people don’t get out much, there aren’t good places to hang out in Planada. There’s a place we call “the Islands,” a median strip on Broadway Avenue, in the middle of Planada, that used to be landscaped with a walking path. Back when it was new, it was one of the prettiest places in Planada, and you could walk safely through some green grass and plants. The people who lived there were supposed to take care of it, but they don’t water or keep up the landscaping. It’s dirty and dusty, and people have thrown trash around and moved the rocks that used to make up the path, so no one walks there anymore.

We’re not the only kids who have gotten used to making dangerous choices. We both know people who have been killed on the train tracks in Planada. One kid was poking the wheel of a stopped train with a stick, and a train came at him from the other side. Recently, our school principal kept us after assembly to say he’d gotten phone calls that kids were running between moving train cars and jumping over the railcar connectors to get to school before the bell.

It’s been like this for as long as we can remember. There have been community meetings to improve the roads, but there hasn’t been enough money to change things. And Planada isn’t even a municipality, so it can’t address its own problems. It needs the county.

So the two of us got interested in county planning, and we’re starting to see progress. In late November, we were part of a planning meeting made possible by an environmental justice transportation planning grant CalTrans gave the County of Merced. County planners, members of the local law enforcement and government commission, and engineers talked with residents about getting our help to design better walking and biking conditions in our town. Since then, we’ve been working on a permanent solution. Anthony Cannella, our state senator, has gotten involved.

Here’s our vision: We want to be able to ride our bikes without getting a flat tire because the streets are really bad. We want to walk to school without having to worry about getting hit by trains and speeding cars, and without walking through mud. We want to be able to be outside in the evening when it’s getting dark out. We want to see more activities, like soccer tournaments, for young people. We want Planada to be known for something good—not just the town you drive by on the way up to Yosemite.


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