Isabelle TaylorWednesday, March 15, 2023
The Altamont School has a problem: for cars, there is only one way in and one way out. The driveway leading to the school is a narrow, single-lane road that twists up a steep hill and ends in a small loop. Driving up the hill can be dicey on a clear, dry day and treacherous when the weather is bad. If the driveway ices over, it is impassable. Twice a day, the carpool line stretches down the steep drive and spills out into the surrounding area with cars backed up on Cliff Road and Altamont Road. Traffic on these roads can be heavy during morning and afternoon rush hours because they not only serve the school but are main access routes for homes in the Forest Park neighborhood. Altamont has roughly 360 students and over 80 staff members, almost all of whom get to and from campus by car, which adds hundreds of vehicles to these roads during carpool time.
Busy carpool lanes are danger zones for both cars and kids. According to 2019 Traffic Safety Facts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly 17% of all single-vehicle or two-vehicle crashes occurred when vehicles were either stopped or slowed in a traffic lane, both of which happen during Altamont carpool. The NHTSA report also determined that 90% of rear-end collisions occurred because of distracted driving. Carpool lanes with long wait-times make it easy for drivers to lose focus and let their guard down, sometimes relaxing in ways they normally would not. People near the school carpool line report seeing kids with unbuckled seat belts and have even seen children hanging out of windows. Although accidents in stop-and-go traffic are more likely to be low-impact, they can result in injury, especially if passengers are not properly restrained. Children participating in the type of behaviors observed in carpool line at Altamont could get badly hurt even in a minor fender-bender.
While the school does its best to make carpool run quickly and smoothly while also maintaining safety standards, there is only so much that can be done given the geographical limitations of a hilltop location with only one driveway and a small turnaround loop. Adding to these limitations are increases in enrollment, staff, and the number of student drivers. Most students 16 and older drive their own cars. They park on campus in the lower parking lot, which shares the same driveway as the rest of the school.
When spaces are not actual spaces: a typical day in the Altamont student parking lot.
There are now more student cars than available spaces. During carpool times, Altamont security must stop traffic on the hill to let student drivers on and off the lot, further impacting the flow of traffic and adding inexperienced drivers into the mix. Tenth-grader Izzy Sellers says security does a good job keeping students' cars moving, but there is a significant delay. Student drivers can get stuck along with the rest of traffic in both morning and afternoon lines.
Afternoon carpool seems to have the longest line for everyone involved. Students regularly wait 30 or even 45 minutes to get picked up, and some report even longer delays. This makes attending off-campus after-school activities challenging. Sixth grader Belen Cunill says the traffic on the hill makes getting to her dance classes on time difficult and that, as a result, she has been late on several occasions. School lets out at 3:30 p.m., and the additional traffic-caused time needed for pickup makes it difficult for students to participate in any activities that start close to 4:00 p.m.
To work around these problems, some pickup drivers arrive as early as 2:45 p.m. in order to try to guarantee a spot in the carpool line that is close to the school doors. Drivers report that by 3:00 p.m., the line of cars often backs up all the way to Morningside Drive, which is half a mile away from school, and remains slow or stopped for more than 30 minutes. And due to the hot Alabama climate and other factors, these cars usually sit with their engines running. Idling engines waste gas, pollute the air, and add to climate change. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, idling personal vehicles waste about 3 billion gallons of fuel and generate approximately 30 million tons of carbon dioxide each year in the U.S.
In addition to causing pollution, the backup of cars on the narrow single-lane roads leading to the school makes it impossible for drivers who are not headed to Altamont to pass through, which further compounds the traffic problem. The congestion around the school regularly lasts until 4:30 p.m. when the bulk of students have left for the day.
Over the years, Altamont administration has proposed solutions to the carpool problem. Four years ago, there were plans to build a new driveway, which would have been a second entrance and exit, on the back side of the school behind Patton Gym. In 2019, parents and guardians received an email from the school that included the statement, “We have this great idea about how to fix carpool.” Later that year, an administration email to staff said the driveway project was progressing according to schedule. Those plans, however, seemed to fall off the table shortly afterward with the emergence of COVID-19 and other factors that led to the abandonment of the project. Brent Marshall, Altamont's Director of Facilities, explained that the 2019 plans were fully underway: the school had hired a crew and purchased the materials, but then people in the neighborhood pushed back. They were concerned about additional traffic, teenage drivers, and other safety issues that the project would bring to area streets. Marshall says they took their concerns to the Neighborhood Association and City Hall, and Birmingham officials cancelled the plans.
Today, Altamont continues to look for solutions. According to Marshall, the administration is actively pursuing plans to add a larger loop around the campus. Marshall says he would also like to see more students ridesharing when possible to cut down on the number of cars in line. He says the problem has a “bottom-up solution” in addition to the “top-down solution” that would come from the administration, and that student involvement is key. One small step that students who live close to campus can take is to ride bikes or walk to campus. Marshall remains confident that the Altamont community will come up with a good plan to accommodate the needs of a growing school.
Perhaps carpool should once again return to its roots. The word used to mean that multiple people would share a ride in a car. Over time, it has come to signify long tiresome lines of pollution-emitting vehicles sitting outside of schools, containing frustrated parents and sometimes just one child, all of whom spend a good chunk of their day sitting in cars ... waiting.
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