Bike to School
Today, May 8, was the second annual national Bike to School day. This year, I helped organize a bike to school event for my local middle school, and the experience was both rewarding and exhausting. The day dawned cloudy with just a hint of morning drizzle, which I think may have kept some families from participating, but we ultimately had about 12 kids and 4 parents participate in our group ride to school.
I was initially prompted to organize this event last fall after a student was struck by a car while bicycling to the local middle school. Fortunately, the girl was not seriously injured, but I’ll never forget the sight of the girl’s bicycle wedged under that car’s front bumper, and I resolved to do something about it.
A little bit of research showed how much walking and bicycling to school have declined in the last few decades. According to US DOT statistics, in 1969 almost 50 percent of American schoolkids walked or biked to school. Today that number has declined to just over 10 percent. I remember walking a little over a mile to the local elementary school when I was growing up, but in recent years, my wife and I almost always drove our kids to school, and statistically we’re pretty common. Here’s the really sad part: when my son was attending the local elementary campus, less than a quarter of a mile from our house, we drove him. Every day. Granted, there are no sidewalks on our street, and he’d have to cross the street where there’s no crosswalk at the corner where the bicyclist was struck, but that’s no excuse. We could have walked with him. Truth be told, my wife or I often walked to the school to pick him up at the end of the day, but on busy mornings, we got in the car.
There are many reasons for this, and parents I’ve talked to often cite safety as the number one reason they chauffeur their kids to and from school in cars. Ironically, the mini-traffic jams our cars cause around schools twice a day are one of the main reasons the streets are less safe than they were 30 or 40 years ago. The pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from literally millions of cars idling in front of schools across America is not inconsequential, either. Moreover, we’re implicitly teaching our kids to depend on cars for every little trip, and the lack of exercise among young people is part of what has led to an obesity epidemic among American youngsters.
There is also a fear of predators expressed by parents. While statistically, the chance of a predator attacking a child on the way to school is much smaller than a child getting killed in a car accident, the fear is nonetheless real. This is why organized bike and walk to school events are so important. They offer parents an opportunity to supervise a wholesome and environmentally friendly way to travel to school by organizing “bike trains” and “walking school buses.” Young people get healthy exercise, develop knowledge of the rules of the road, and connect with their communities in a group setting.
These bike to school days don’t have to be every day, but can be once a week or once a month. In the past year, my daughter and I have been bicycling to her school once a week (save a couple of days when it was raining pretty hard). In addition to being great exercise for both of us, she’s learning to be more confident on the road, and it provides wonderful father-daughter time.
I’ve been feeling a little discouraged lately about the slow pace of change in this car-obsessed culture, and the magnitude of the environmental crisis that our addiction to fossil fuels exacerbates. But there was real enthusiasm from the parents and kids on the ride. The local PD offered a bicycle escort, and even stopped traffic at the two major intersections we rode through on the way to school, making the event stress-free for the kids. The parents who participated are already talking about putting together more events of this sort to help kids learn to ride safely, and the local principal has been super supportive.
Maybe, just maybe, we’ll break our dependency on cars. One small step at a time.