Creating a much-needed safe route in west Eugene

Cesar Chavez Elementary, neighborhood get overdue updates

A child on an electric scooter and a pedestrian use a marked crosswalk with a school crossing traffic sign to cross in front of oncoming traffic.
New signals, signs and more are part of Safe Routes to School upgrades near Cesar Chavez Elementary in Eugene.

Patrick Waters and his wife bought a house they wanted to make their permanent home. Schools were nearby, the neighborhood was cozy and the potential seemed unlimited.

Then he tried walking his first-grader to Cesar Chavez Elementary.

“Literally from day one I thought, ‘Oh my word, this is dangerous.’”

He was talking about Eugene’s busy Chambers Street, a long north-south route through an older part of town with several busy cross-streets nearby (13th and 18th avenues), yet Chambers is a street he, his children and dozens of other youngsters from the neighborhood had to cross to get onto Eugene 4J School property.

The signs in place at the time about school zone speed did nothing to slow traffic, so Waters began a letter-writing, in-person testimony and phone-calling campaign that lasted until – finally – a Safe Routes to School grant helped the city and the school district make changes Waters says will work.

His first-grader is now a senior in high school. That’s how long it took.

Other efforts failed

Waters and other concerned families saw several efforts over the years to remedy the problem, but in some cases, the situation worsened. A marked crosswalk was installed – at 15th instead of 14th, which would have made more sense, according to Waters – and it caused traffic going one direction to stop but traffic going the other direction didn’t stop.

“There were no flashing lights. A child could easily think she was safe and walk right into 40 mile per hour traffic,” Waters said. In addition, at 15th Ave., there was no way to actually get to the school through the surrounding park-like grounds (completely soggy in winter), so children had to go back past 14th Ave. to get to the sidewalk on 13th taking them to the school.

About two weeks after the new crossing at 15th Ave., two children were walking to school and the 6-year-old was nearly killed. It was traumatic for the Waters family – Peter’s wife was one of the first on scene and to assist the child, who spent several months at Doernbecher Hospital in Portland.

“I was so angry. The signage was inconsistent. On one side, it said ‘School zone, 20 mph when children are present’ and the other side said, ‘Speed limit 30,” Waters recalled. “It was mind-boggling.”

Elementary students play in an outdoor playground at Cesar Chavez Elementary school.
Students at Cesar Chavez Elementary in west Eugene now have safer ways to get to and from school.

A much-needed solution

When the city of Eugene applied for a grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program, the team noted how severe the situation had become:

“There have been 11 crashes within the project area – 5 minor injuries; 3 moderate injuries; and 1 major injury… A recent event occurred at the existing Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon crosswalk across Chambers Street when a student pressed the button and was struck by a car that did not stop in time. Slowing traffic speeds is a key objective of this project.”

The project includes “School zone when flashing” signs, noting that the speed limit is 20, as well as speed reader signs that show how fast your vehicle is going. These are located on Chambers, from 14th Ave. to Fern Ridge path.

“This outcome now is just fantastic,” Waters said, relieved that he is no longer referred to as the man with the slow down signs. In his safety campaign years, he would laminate colorful signs and stand on busy Chambers reminding drivers of the school zone and the 20 mph speed limit. He said it worked – people would slam on their brakes at his reminders. Now, he’s done being the “school zone guy.”

The change, he notes, is tremendous, and Eugene 4J School Senior Transportation Planner Reed Dunbar agrees.

“A safer route to school has been established by eliminating a major barrier in the active transportation network,” Dunbar said. “The pedestrian signal is easy to understand, and due to the program’s quick turnaround, we were able to deliver the project in short order.”

Not a minute too soon for Patrick Waters and his neighbors.

“Just the livability – the ability to walk back and forth without worrying about traffic or your kids,” Waters said. “I’m so happy this has been done.”

Eugene resident Patrick Waters gives an interview wearing a puffy black coat and a baseball cap.

Watch a video about this SRTS project and Waters’ experience. Learn more about Safe Routes to School, which has programmed more than $44 million just since the 2017 legislative package, Keep Oregon Moving. And discover how creating safe alternatives to driving is part of ODOT’s priority of building a modern transportation system.