Tomorrow, May 9, is the first annual Bike to School Day. It's all part of National Bike Month, and an estimated 1,000 schools are expected to participate around the country—far more kids than those who ride on a regular basis. According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, 48 percent of K-8th grade students walked or bicycled to school in 1969, but by 2009 that number had dropped to only 13 percent.
That’s a pretty startling drop any way you slice it, but when you consider the rise in both childhood obesity and carbon emissions, it’s downright depressing. Factor in the immeasurable boosts to kids’ confidence, independence, and creativity that getting to school under their own power can bring them, and it’s easy to lament the loss of one of childhood’s greatest perks.
In suburban New Jersey in the early '80s, riding your bike to school was the cool, coveted thing to do. The bike racks outside Lincoln School were tangled with cruisers and curly-cued 10-speeds secured with see-through rubber-coated locks. School rules mandated that you had to be in third grade to ride; once you reached that milestone, you had to pass a safety test, cleverly disguised as a "bike fair," run by the town police. For your efforts, you were awarded with a miniature metal license plate that clanged under your saddle and carte blanche for pedaling to school. Once I got my “license,” I’d hop on my blue Raleigh three-speed and my sister and I would tear down Fernwood Road together, three-quarters of a mile to school. Short-cutting through a nearby apartment complex was strictly forbidden, but some days, when we were riding late, we did it anyway. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved riding bikes—thanks in no small part, I suspect, to the freedom I felt sailing across the streets of Summit under my own steam.
Even if your child’s school isn't hosting an official event for Bike to School Day on May 9, you can still get in on the action. Ride with little ones to school, or, if you live too far away, driving to a designated point closer to school and then riding from there counts too. If your child is too young to ride on their own, put them in your bike trailer or kids’ seat and pedal them on yours. Now that the weather’s nice, I’ve been pedaling our two daughters in our Burley D’Lite all over town, sticking to back streets and bike paths, and there’s no better start to the day than an early morning cruise to school. For kids who live too far away to ride, Walkbiketoschool.org recommends bringing their bikes to school and riding there, at recess or after school.
As for the other 179-plus days of school, one elementary in North Carolina has created a two-week log for students to record miles ridden—whether it’s to school or the bus stop or “bonus miles” after school or on weekends. Another school in Colorado has set up meeting points where teachers and students can convene to ride or walk to school every Wednesday; a punch card keeps track of participation and offers incentives. Biketoschool.org offers tips on organizing "bike trains" so kids can bike safely in a group, and enables you to map the best and safest way to school, using crossing guards and traffic signals.
Behold Kidical Mass. Photo: Kidicalmass.org
Bike to School Day is one of several nationwide initiatives designed to reunite kids with their bikes. The National Center for Safe Routes to School (SRTS) works with schools and local communities to enable and encourage children to walk or ride to school. By providing mini grants of $1,000 to schools nationwide, SRTS helps funds improvements to the physical environment, like building sidewalks and bike paths. Kidical Mass, a kiddy version of pro-bicycle advocacy movement Critical Mass, organizes rides in more than a dozen communities, mostly on the West Coast, to promote bicycling and teach road safety to the youngest generation. (Motto: "Kids are traffic, too.") Strider bikes, trikes, tag-a-longs and trailers—they're all fair game.
The Boulder-based innovator Boltage (formerly Freiker) marries technology with sociology to make walking and biking to school "a way of life." (Its mascot, the flying thunder bunny, is charged with "saving the planet from the evils of being lazy"). The company outfits schools with a solar-powered, Wi-Fi-enabled scanning system called the Zap that tracks how many students ride or walk to school and bestows goodies like stickers, hand stamps, and wristbands on kids who log the fewest car trips. The Zap uses RFID (radio frequency identification) to read badges on kids’ bikes or backpacks; when they pass the scanner at school, the Zap uploads that data to the Internet (it’s also a great way to check that your kid made it to school). Each participant has an account on Boltage’s website, where they view all their rides, and the school can tabulate who pedaled enough to earn rewards. To date, Boltage riders have logged more than 800,000 miles nationwide and saved 1.3 million pounds of carbon dioxide. To find out more about setting up the Boltage program at an elementary school near you, check out www.boltage.org.
Before and after, at Burlington Elementary, Longmont, Colorado. Photo: Boltage
How do you know if your child's old enough to ride safely to school? "There’s no magic age," says Nancy Pullen-Seuefert of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, "though we know that kids under 10 do not have the cognitive abilities to make decisions about when it’s safe to cross the street without the help of an adult." The best way to assess their bicycling skills is to spend time riding with your child, and talk to them about preparing to ride and deciding where to ride, and practice riding skills. To make riding to school safer and more fun, many schools and communities have begun adult-supervised bike trains, which pick up students as they pass their homes on the trip to school. Think of them as the new-school biker gangs!
Pullen-Seufert recommends these five tips for riding safely—tomorrow and everyday:
1. Plan out the route with your child ahead of time and practice it if you won’t always ride together. This way students will know where to stop, signal and walk their bikes. Look for low-speed, low-traffic streets and minimal street crossings. Map-a-Route can help.
2. Discuss with your child whether he can ride alone, with friends, or only when there’s an adult.
3. Helmets are a must—on every ride.
4. Dress to be seen. Wear brightly colored clothes and reflective gear, such as a reflective vest, book bag tags, or pant leg straps.
5. Learn and follow the rules of the road, like riding in the same direction as cars if you’re on the street, being predictable by riding in a straight line and using hand signals, and obeying traffic signs and signals. Local bike rodeos and bike safety demonstrations can be a great resource. Check the American League of Bicyclists for a listing of upcoming rodeos: www.bikeleague.org
See you out there!