Petaluma students ride SMART for environment

As the train hugged the hillsides south of Petaluma, it was hard for Kylie Kerr, 17, and Ava Schafbuch, 18, not to romanticize about the natural splendor outside the window.

“It’s really beautiful, and kind of exciting,” Schafbuch said. “You feel like you’re on an adventure. It’s fun, and that’s what we’re trying to promote.”

Environmental sustainability is the focus of the Petaluma Youth Commission this term, and last week a group of Petaluma High School seniors participated in an event aptly-named “Sol Train,” organized by Kerr and Schafbuch, the respective youth chair and vice chair.

After class was dismissed Friday, they met at the SMART train depot in downtown Petaluma, and took a ride to San Rafael to raise awareness about the benefits of using sustainable modes of transportation. That, and to enjoy some savory Puerto Rican fare at Sol Food, located a block away from the San Rafael station.

“With driving, you have to worry about gas and traffic and getting everyone in one car and doing all this stuff when the train is easy,” Kerr said. “You buy a $3.50 ticket, get on a train, and it gets you there faster, more efficiently and everyone can fit. For teens that can’t drive, this is inexpensive, and can take you anywhere from Santa Rosa to San Rafael and eventually Larkspur (later this year).”

SMART representatives met the students at the stop, providing safety tips and answering questions about the eco-friendly aspirations of the transit agency.

At 3:55 p.m., a southbound train pulled into the Petaluma station, and the students gleefully boarded, searching for a section that had enough seats for them to sit together.

Once they were onboard, everyone instinctively started snapping selfies. Neal Ramus, Adult Chair of the Youth Commission, joked that he posted his first Instagram story, a crowning achievement celebrated by the social media veterans he was chaperoning.

Using social media was a focus for the event, Kerr said. For those that couldn’t make it, or had little exposure to SMART, which surveys have shown gets used primarily by older, wealthier and whiter riders, social media impressions were vital to attracting youth to the train.

“Everyone watches social media,” Kerr said. “A lot of people nowadays get on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter - our president goes on Twitter to explain things - so most people see social media, especially our generation. I think that this is the best way for people to do it.”

Students in Petaluma have recently been speaking out against what they see as a failure from leaders to better address climate change. In March, students walked out of schools across the county, answering a global call to rally for action.

The local protests followed two years of wildfires that were the deadliest and most costly in the state’s history, a situation experts say is intensified by heat-trapping gases that continue to fill the atmosphere. Last year, California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment found wildfires larger than 25,000 acres could become 50 percent more frequent if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.

According to Point Blue, a Petaluma conservation nonprofit that conducted coastal studies for the climate assessment, California sea levels are projected to rise 10 inches within 30 years, flooding areas where 37,000 people live and 13,000 people work.

The economic toll would be approximately $8 billion, according to Point Blue’s findings.

“I think education is the most important key to getting people interested and aware of climate change,” Schafbuch said. “That’s our role as heads of the Youth Commission, to inspire others who might not be educated or not know the resources like the train that can help in reducing emissions.”

Added Kerr, “There’s all these little changes that everyone can make that are super easy and - not help stop or prevent - but slow down global warming.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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