Opinion: Ana Vasudeo — Why a safe streets advocate should serve on the Berkeley School Board

Ana Vasudeo will be a rockstar board director for many reasons. One key one is her commitment to making sure that students’ trips to and from school are safe, healthy and fun.

Ana Vasudeo will be a rockstar Berkeley School Board Director for dozens of reasons. A key area where she stands out from the crowd is her commitment to making sure that students’ trips to and from school are safe, healthy and fun.

Berkeley students can’t benefit from high quality schools if they can’t get to school safely. Too often, kids miss school because they lack reliable transportation. By prioritizing walking, biking and busing to school, Ana will make sure that kids get to school and get physical activity that promotes health and focus. And we’ll all benefit from a safer, healthier, and more environmentally sustainable community.

We first met Ana on the steps of Berkeley City Council chambers in March 2018. She and other safe streets advocates had gathered to support Council in adopting a Vision Zero road safety policy with the goal of eliminating severe and fatal traffic injuries by 2028. Ana provided powerful testimony about prioritizing safety for our children on their way to and from school. As a parent of two BUSD students, she cried while speaking about the tragic and preventable death of Zachary Cruz, a BUSD kindergartener who was killed in 2009 when a driver hit him in a crosswalk at Warring and Derby streets.

As both the Vice-President for Equity and Inclusion of the Berkeley PTA Council and a Walk Bike Berkeley member, Ana has continued pushing the city and BUSD to make our streets safer for people of all ages and abilities. She’s especially focused on Berkeley’s most vulnerable students. They have to contend with the city’s most dangerous roadways, which are predominantly located in Berkeley’s historically redlined neighborhoods.

Ana is an expert on “Safe Routes to School” — a nationwide movement that aims to make it safer and easier for students to walk, bike, roll or take the bus to school. She currently oversees the Safe Routes to School program in San Francisco, which serves 103 public schools. She cares deeply about the safety of all our students — not just while they are at school — but also on their way to and from school. Currently, even in walkable, bikeable Berkeley, many parents choose to drive their children to school because of understandable safety concerns. Too many children have been injured walking or biking to and from school in Berkeley.

With Ana’s leadership, BUSD will develop a robust Safe Routes to School program to increase the number of students who walk or bike to school. Doing so would have multiple benefits, including safer and healthier students, lower transportation costs for the district and families, reduced congestion and air pollution and improved academic performance. Berkeley’s Safe Routes to School program would prioritize helping low-income and students of color walk, bike, roll or take the bus to school (and perhaps be funded through the proposed Climate Equity Action Fund — vote for Measure HH!).

Ana’s professional experience leading district-wide programs in coordination with district and city leadership will help BUSD confront its transportation challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, BUSD is very focused on ensuring a COVID-safe environment for when Berkeley students eventually return to school sites. But BUSD has given little thought to how students will get to and from school safely. Physical distancing needs will likely mean that BUSD is forced to bus fewer students. Pre-COVID, 20% of BUSD’s 4500 elementary students relied on the bus — a reduction in service will affect many students and will do so inequitably. Ana’s voice will be critical for ensuring equity, avoiding “carmageddon,” and building healthy habits by making walking and biking to school as safe and attractive as possible for all BUSD students.

Ana is already making a difference. When BUSD started distributing materials to students for remote learning, their messaging and guidance focused exclusively on car pick-up and delivery. Ana coordinated a strong push-back with the support of several public health professionals. The team noted that many families do not own a car; that reliance on cars causes congestion and pollution; and that dependence upon cars is unnecessary to reduce COVID transmission risk. In response, BUSD and the City’s Public Health Division committed to clearer guidance for safely distributing materials to families on foot or bike. Ana’s understanding of how families get to and from school propelled her to fight for all families, including vulnerable transit-dependent families, to ensure equitable access to resources.

If you live in Berkeley and care about making our streets safe for everyone, please vote for Ana Vasudeo for Berkeley School Board. As fellow safe street advocates with children enrolled in our public schools, we cannot wait to have a School Board Director who thinks about school safety in the comprehensive way that Ana Vasudeo does. Join us in supporting Ana!

Liza Lutzker is a Walk Bike Berkeley coordinating committee member and is a parent of two Sylvia Mendez Elementary School students, where she has been the Safe Routes to School Parent Champion for the past 5 years. Sara Zimmerman is a parent of a BUSD high schooler and elementary schooler, former program and policy director at Safe Routes Partnership, and a health equity specialist. Ben Gerhardstein is a parent of two Washington Elementary School students, a Walk Bike Berkeley coordinating committee member, and a former transportation commissioner. Jacqueline Erbe is a parent of two Rosa Parks Elementary School students, a Walk Bike Berkeley coordinating committee member, and a public works commissioner.