We welcome the new Coordinator, Cherie Walkowiak, and look forward to her work improving safety and encouraging alternate forms of transportation for all CUSD and FUHSD students on their way to school. Walk-Bike Cupertino interviewed Cherie so that you can get to know her better.

WBC: What is your previous experience that led you to becoming Cupertino’s SRTS Coordinator? 

CW: The three biggest contributors to my becoming Cupertino’s SR2S Coordinator are my experience running Carbon Free Mountain View, Safe Mountain View and working as an SRTS coordinator in Palo Alto.

WBC: What is Safe Mountain View? How did it influence you to become a Safe Routes advocate?

CW: By the time my son entered kindergarten, my family had mostly given up driving, preferring to walk or ride bikes wherever we could. My kids, of course, walked to school with me or their dad. On far too many occasions, my family was almost hit in the crosswalk at a particular large intersection between our home and their school. The drivers would be turning left and, somehow, they wouldn’t see us in the crosswalk in front of them until the last second, when they would swerve to avoid a collision. After some investigation, I asked the City to make it safer for pedestrians. This work turned me into an advocate and I became one of the founding members and leader of Safe Mountain View (SMV). SMV improved safety by successfully advocating for protected bike lanes and protected intersections in specific Mountain View locations, and even pioneered a pop-up protected Bike Lane program. Through my work with SMV, I developed a passion for biking infrastructure and ways to make non-car travel safe for kids.

So how did the Carbon Free Mountain View work lead you to the Safe Routes to School program in Cupertino?

At the same time as I was starting Safe Mountain View, I read an article by leading climate scientist Bill McKibben called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. The article essentially said if we didn’t starting doing something immediately to lower the carbon in the atmosphere, the children entering kindergarten that year would not graduate from high school with a habitable planet to live on. With my youngest child entering kindergarten that year, the thought of him not having a future was devastating. 

Then and there, I committed myself to bringing 100% carbon free electricity to my city by 2020! In 2013 I founded a small but mighty advocacy group called Carbon Free Mountain View. We discovered Community Choice Energy, and advocated for them across the county. Eventually, Silicon Valley Clean Energy was established in 2017— three years before our target date! I’m very proud that without our advocacy it likely would not have been established with carbon free electricity as the default. During our advocacy, Cupertino City Hall became familiar territory. I was present when the Cupertino City Council voted to join SVCE and voted unanimously to source 100% carbon free electricity as the default. Cupertino has a special place in my heart because of the leading role it took along with Mountain View and Sunnyvale in creating the first carbon free CCE in the nation.

It sounds like you did a lot of work in Mountain View. How did you end up in Palo Alto on safe biking and walking issues?

My family purchased a new home in 2015, which meant our cost of living went up so I needed to go back into the paid workforce. I considered going back to school to become an urban planner when I was offered a part time job as a Safe Routes to School Coordinator for the City of Palo Alto. I love to organize, educate, and make it safe for kids to get around, so it turned out to be the perfect job that I didn’t know existed! Lucky for me, I learned from one of the best in the country. Their classroom and on-the-blacktop pedestrian and bicycle education they offer at multiple grades to every student in the district is the backbone of their program, and the extremely high numbers of students riding, walking, or taking the bus to school every day are evidence that their program is working well.

In my time in Palo Alto, the things I’m most proud of or enjoyed the most are: a workshop for 8th graders to plan and be prepared to get to high school on foot or on a bike; a bike maintenance program for middle schoolers; intersection training at rodeos and at a school when a new roundabout went in; a Bike to Work Day energizer station organization; and working on an annual citywide bike ride.

Palo Alto is known for their commitment to improve walking and biking for their residents.

The projects I worked on were a drop in the bucket compared to all Palo Alto is doing, and I soaked up as much knowledge as I could while I was there. The Cupertino SRTS program is based on Palo Alto’s, which I imagine had a lot to do with why I was chosen to run Cupertino’s program. I’m excited to apply here what I learned there. Other experiences that probably contributed to my candidacy are that I have a teaching credential (to teach French), and I am a newly minted League Certified Cycling Instructor.

Why do you feel that SRTS is important?

For so many reasons! In a nutshell, because it makes for healthy kids and communities by promoting kids walking and biking to school. Safe Routes to School has seven components that all start with E: Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Evaluation, Enforcement, Equity, and Engagement.

How does the first E, Engineering, help with Safe Routes to School?

If the roads are designed to be safe enough for our kids, they are safe for everyone. Cupertino is currently working on implementing improvements around schools in the city which will make it more comfortable to walk or bike to school. SRTS identified these improvement recommendations through recent walk audits. I expect to see an increase in the number of students walking and biking to school once these improvements and the City Bike and Pedestrian Transportation Plans are implemented. 

Many parents have said that Education and Encouragement are becoming more important to the program.

Students are much more likely to walk or bike to school if they know how to safely! Learning the rules of the road makes them more predictable walkers and riders and gives them confidence to get around on their own when they are old enough. It’s fun to ride a bike, scooter or walk! It’s even more fun when you’re doing it with your friends. Encouragement events at schools are a great way to shift the culture towards one that celebrates walking and biking.

How do you know that changes will be effective?

The Safe Routes to School program orchestrates two travel tallies each year, which tells us how many kids are biking, walking, carpooling, taking the bus or driving. Having students participate in the survey lets them know it’s important to think about how they are getting to school. This is also valuable information that informs the City of how much the program is making a difference.

The other E’s seem to be about partnering with the local community.

Our partnership with the Sheriff’s Department translates to enforcement around schools, which encourages drivers to obey the rules of the road, which increases safety for everyone. We also focus on equity, specifically inclusivity, where families whose native language is not English benefit from the materials we have translated into other languages, such as Suggested Routes to School maps. Lastly, we encourage engagement, with the SRTS program providing a forum to bring together people to collaborate on a common purpose who otherwise would not be in contact. This is community-building at its finest. The participation of all our partners from school administration, district staff from both CUSD and FUHSD, parent volunteers, students, the Sheriff’s Department, and the City is crucial to the success of the program and safety of our kids.

Do you walk or bike in your everyday life?

We walk or bike wherever we can. My daughter rides her scooter and my son walks to middle school and back. Whenever we go out to dinner, we walk. When I go to the farmer’s market, I load up my cargo bike and trailer. I typically bike or walk to a local market for shopping. We bike to the movie theater and walk or bike to the library. I’m experimenting with biking to and from work. It takes an hour to bike each way to Cupertino, which is a lot of time away from my kids, so I try to bike one direction most days. Once I’m at work, if I have offsite meetings, I ride my personal bike or a City bike whenever I can.

What do you hope to accomplish for Cupertino SRTS in the short term?

Short term, my biggest goal is to get up to speed and learn the program inside and out. When I started in September, there were a lot of projects and events in motion which are now complete. I’m now hunkering down to learn all I can about the program. Through this process, I will learn what programs have been tried, what’s working, and where there are holes or room for improvement. There are also several projects I’m currently working on, including a bike skills workshop for middle-schoolers building off our summer pilot program, school communications for the McClellan Road bikeway project, participating in the Homestead Corridor study, and working with community partners on investigating bike access improvements at Lawson Middle School and Cupertino High School.

What do you see as your long term goals for SRTS in Cupertino?

I have many long term goals which relate to most of the E’s the program is built around. I’m excited to help usher in infrastructure improvement projects. Experience tells me this will involve a lot of coordination and outreach to the schools to keep them in the loop as construction projects progress. I’m also excited about the possibility of expanding and standardizing education across schools. Tentatively, I am hoping this will include both pedestrian education and expanded bike education to include on-bike skills practice in addition to what is already being offered. I’d like to help foster encouragement events at schools who do not currently have them, so that all schools establish regular encouragement events. I aim to raise Cupertino’s rate of students who take alternative modes of travel to school (meaning everything other than the one-family car, so: biking, walking, scooting, bussing, wheelchairing or carpooling). As the roads improve, education expands, and encouragement events become standard at every school, I can’t help but think this will make a difference. Last, I aim to expand program participation by helping recruit one or two parents from every school in the district where there is not already parent involvement. This would be in addition to the school and district staff participation we already have at all the schools.

All that should keep me busy for a little while, and I’m excited to dig in!

Has anything surprised or pleased you so far about SRTS in Cupertino?

I have been very impressed with the community dedicated to Safe Routes to School in Cupertino – from parent volunteers to school admin, district staff, City Staff and community members. The are a few parents in particular who are doing a tremendous service to our community, from organizing encouragement or education events at their school to putting heads together to figure out how to get a trail built that would make it easier for students to ride to the bike racks on campus. A handful of school administrators are also doing a fabulous job of organizing encouragement events at their schools, which is making a difference in the number of students walking and biking to their schools. The involvement at the district level, and their desire to be involved has also really impressed me.

In addition to the SRTS partnership, I’ve been impressed by how things function at the City level. I’ve been surprised and pleased by the City of Cupertino’s resources, and how well City Staff work together across departments. Hurdles that we experienced in Palo Alto are non-issues here. We have a media and communications team that creates a newsletter that goes to every resident in the city, educational videos and public service announcements. I could go on, but it really comes down to the people. City staff have been very welcoming, generous with sharing information, and work well together.

Not least among them is my predecessor. I am constantly in awe of everything Chelsea and Matt did before I got here to bring the program such a long way in such a short time. I’m really amazed at all they have done! I LOVE how organized Chelsea was. She left a wealth of information which has helped me jump right in and take over.

Finally, I am very impressed with the Cupertino community, and in particular with Walk-Bike Cupertino. For an organization which is relatively new, they have grown and accomplished much in a short amount of time. I recognize in particular that the group has paved the way for Cupertino’s Safe Routes to School program, and for this I thank you!

What do you like to do in your spare time? Where would you be if you had your choice?

I love to dance, make jewelry and write songs. In fact, I’m currently writing one that describes what it looks and feels like to take a bike ride along Stevens Creek Trail, and asks the question “why would I drive when I can ride?!” It’s a cheerful little ditty that I’d like to add an accordion to, which I don’t play. Any chance there’s an accordionist out there who wants to help me finish my bike song? 

My happy place is in the waves at the beach or in the shade of the forest. I like taking hikes and boogie boarding, and once loved to rock climb, though that seems to have fallen off the top of the priority list. Last, but certainly not least, I love cooking and eating with my kids and friends.

Any last thoughts?

More kids biking and walking is great for our community. For the children themselves, it increases their daily activity, which is good for their body. Arriving to school after some exercise prepares their mind for learning and increases their independence. Finally, developing a habit of physical activity at a young age is more likely to lead to healthy, physically active adults. Every child that walks, bikes, scooters or rides a bus is one fewer car on the road. This reduces traffic congestion and air pollution in our community.

I look forward to working with SRTS’s community partners to make it safer and easier for students to get to school, which will benefit everyone!

For more information or ways to get involved with Safe Routes to School, visit cupertino.org/saferoutes or email them at saferoutes@cupertino.org.