(Update: I wrote a more detailed, yet simplified, post discussing this idea and how to make it happen. You can find that here.)
My very first sentence: I admit that I do not live in North Park and do not have kids to go to these schools discussed. So take everything I propose with a grain of salt.
Now, that being said, I think North Park, and similar neighborhoods, are failing at getting kids to school. When I was growing up in suburbia, I started riding my bike to school with friends when I was in second grade. My guess is that sending your 7-year-old to school alone on a bike in North Park may result in a prison sentence.
McKinley Elementary, one of the elementary schools in North Park, borders Redwood Street. It looks like this:
It's roughly 39 feet wide, with one travel lane in each direction and parallel parking on each side. The travel lanes are way too wide and it's a lot of parking with relatively few houses actually fronting on Redwood. Wide lanes lead to speeding cars. You won't see many crosswalks or an environment where you would send your kid on a bike.
What if instead, we had something like this:
A two-way cycle track next to the sidewalk, protected from the travel lanes with a buffer zone, then parking, and then the travel lanes. With 39 feet of width, we could put in two 9-foot travel lanes, an 8-foot parking lane, a 3-foot buffer, and two 5-foot bike lanes. In addition, each intersection could have curb extensions, making pedestrian crossing easier. Additionally, the sidewalk would be buffered by the bike lane, making for a more comfortable pedestrian experience.
The drawback? The loss of some parking. Obviously this is always difficult, but given that parking is not entirely a problem in this area of North Park, coupled with the safer driving environment and a better path for our kids, I think it's something that could be sold to the public. Moreover, the traffic calming should lead to increased property values. Narrow car lanes lead to slower traffic, meaning less noise for neighbors and a huge safety improvement.
Doing this doesn't even ruin any existing bike lane plans, or at least it shouldn't. Both the San Diego Bike Master Plan and the current draft of the North Park Community Plan (see page 36) propose a bike route one block to the south of Redwood on Palm Street. But look at any map, or try to drive down Palm Street: it's divided by Switzer Canyon, making it impassable on bike let alone car. Unless we are going to build an expensive bike bridge over the canyon, it seems Palm Street may not by the best for a bike route. Let's just move the plan one block to the north and upgrade from a bike route (i.e., no lanes), to a cycle track.
Of course, one street isn't enough. But with relatively minor changes, you could create a biking network for kids (that they may allow adults to use every now and then.) There are already bike lanes on Utah Street, which runs north to University and Jefferson Elementary. Keep the lanes, but reconfigure to create protected lanes on the inside of parking. Connect Redwood with Utah along 28th Street and one block of Upas and you end up hitting Balboa Park as well. If you ran another set of lanes, designed the same as Redwood, up Herman Avenue (also ~39 feet wide), you would add another North-South connector taking kids past the T-32 shopping area (for after school snacks) and up to the North Park Library near University. And then extend south on 32nd from McKinley Elementary, past St. Augustine and down to Juniper. Like this:
This would create a protected bike network that parents could feel safe sending their kids on. The same lanes would create an enhanced pedestrian network. In cities like Siena in Italy, going on an afternoon/evening stroll, or fare una passagiatta, is a daily tradition. Perhaps, with strengthened lines through the community, centered on the schools, a new tradition could form of all the kids and parents joining together on these main drags to go to and from school. Sounds pretty nice to me.
And this could all be done with just a little paint to create the lanes, epoxied sand to create the curb extensions, and some relatively inexpensive traffic posts to delineate everything. To ease concerns, I would propose it as a temporary project, for one school year, to see how it works. I predict success. If it does succeed, we could pursue money from Safe Routes to Schools to make it permanent.
Moreover, it's easier to get buy-in from residents to provide safe facilities for kids than it is for adult cyclists. If we can get a bike network built for kids, it is a way to get the ball rolling against an area of least resistance.
A standard suburbia trope is a vision of kids riding down the calm street to visit friends and go to school. In many urban areas, this vision just isn't possible under our current street designs. By bringing a piece of suburbia to our inner neighborhoods, we may just be able to create some of the feeling of safety and neighborhood that drives many families to the suburbs. Just because you live in North Park (or Mission Hills, or City Heights, etc. etc.) doesn't mean your kid should be deprived of the joy of riding a bike and the independence that goes with it.