Sharing the joy of sharing a ride

Issaquah High School spreads the love about their carpooling program, Liberty High keen to roll

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That was certainly the case at Issaquah High School where, faced with the loss of hundreds of car parking spaces during the schools extensive remodel, students were forced to find a creative solution to the problem of how to accommodate more than 700 student drivers into half as many parking spots.

What they came up with – a carpooling program – has revolutionized the way Issaquah High students travel to school, slashing the number of single occupancy trips that clog not only the school’s parking lot but also city roads, in morning and afternoon peak hours.

The success of the carpooling program – about a third of all driving-aged students now carpool – is about more than parking. Through their commitment to sharing rides the students are also tackling important environmental, social and economic issues, reducing their reliance on fossil fuels and their carbon footprint, saving money, and improving their relationships with other students.

I first heard about the Issaquah High carpooling program in August of last year, when I wrote about it for The Reporter. But the story peaked more than just my journalistic interest. As a member of Sustainable Issaquah and its coordinating committee, I am always looking out for great things that locals are doing to improve the quality of life in Issaquah, by being conscious of our environment, our economy, and strengthening the connections of residents and businesses with each other.

I was surprised to hear that Issaquah High School was one of the only schools in the country to launch a carpooling program – searching for similar efforts to help inform theirs, they found there weren’t any.

That’s when Sustainable Issaquah got involved. We knew that if we could replicate the success of the Issaquah program at the other high schools in the district, we would be doing a big favor for our roads, our environment, and our quality of life.

So I approached Assistant Principal Julia Bamba, and seniors Hannah Thomas, Olivia Schmoe, Halina Moran and Darci Curtin, with just that idea – take your carpooling story on the road, talk to other students, tell them how you did it. I figured the best way to spread the message was by having students talking to their peers. The last person they want to tell them how they should get to school is some crony like me, a teacher, or some school district official they don’t relate to.

To their enormous credit, the four students loved the idea and rose to the challenge.

At an intra-school meeting of students and teachers from Issaquah, Liberty and Skyline high schools last week, Thomas, Schmoe, Moran and Curtin showed their peers just what is possible with a carpooling program, giving a presentation on the victories, the issues to overcome, and the nuts and bolts of how to get the thing up and running.

“At first, it was mostly environmental, for me,” said Thomas. “But then I came to understand the social part of it too. I love riding in to school with my carpool buddies. They have become some of my really good friends.”

Though the original architects of the carpooling program have now graduated, the energy for the idea continues to build. In 2008, 315 students carpooled to school – in 2009, 348 students signed up.

“The program was a lot more popular than we expected,” said Vice Principal Julia Bamba, who worked with students to establish the carpooling system two years ago. “The students have shown a great enthusiasm for riding to school with their friends. And they are appreciative of the savings they make, with the cost of gas what it is.”

Carpooling students also get to share the annual $110 fee for a parking spot. And they get the priority spots, closer to the school.

The number of carpooling students in the district is now set to skyrocket with news that Liberty High School, inspired by Issaquah’s example, will launch their own carpool program.

With expansion of the Liberty campus in Renton scheduled to begin in the next 12-18 months, staff and students are facing the same construction pressures that forced Issaquah High to find a parking solution.

At last week’s intra-district meeting, Liberty High School Dean of Students Dana Greenberg said she could see no reason why Liberty students wouldn’t take to the idea just as their Issaquah peers had.

“This looks like something that would really benefit us, particularly with construction set to begin soon,” she said. “I’m really impressed with what they were able to achieve at Issaquah High. We need to get something like this going.”

The Issaquah School District is also considering incentives for carpooling, such as gift cards at local businesses, or by emphasizing the financial penalty of a single-occupancy trip.

Though Skyline High School representatives at last week’s meeting didn’t express any enthusiasm for a carpooling program, time, and development on the Plateau, may soon force them to get involved.

Traffic congestion on 228th Avenue, particularly in the a.m. and p.m. school peak hours, is regularly cited by citizens and city staff as being the number one problem the city will have to address. A lot of that traffic is caused by single-occupancy trips to and from local high schools.

Skyline, and Eastlake and Eastside Catholic high schools, would be doing their community a favor by following the admirable lead of their peers in Issaquah.