Riding my bike to school was one of the best things about fifth grade; I just didn't realize it then. As a 10-year-old, I wasn't thinking about how biking helped me stay thin and healthy, be more alert in class, or contribute to reduced road congestion and air pollution.
All of these benefits were there, but for me, biking to school was mainly about freedom, adventure and fun. It was a 15-minute ride, covering a little more than a mile -- a mix of lightly traveled residential streets, steering past gregarious dogs and nutty squirrels, ending with a short stretch of dirt trail across a field to the bike rack by the brick school building.
It was also nearly 50 years ago, in a town of 10,000 people, in a nation that had 100 million fewer residents than today and many fewer cars on the road. No doubt biking to school was easier then. Today, as millions of American children prepare to return to the classroom, it's arguably much more important:
- A record 25 million U.S. children are either overweight, clinically obese, or at risk of becoming so. Biking regularly to school is clearly associated with a lower risk of obesity.
- If U.S. biking and walking to school could rebound to 1969 participation levels, 3.2 billion miles of car trips would be eliminated and 1.5 million tons of CO2 pollution would be avoided. Biking is good for the environment and reduces fossil fuel use as well as traffic congestion.
- Improved concentration, verbal skills, and higher self-esteem are associated with students who are physically active. Bicycling contributes to strong academic performance. Don't we need more of that?
I believe that most parents know that bike-riding is a good thing for their kids. They also know that today's obstacles are more daunting than those of the late 20th century. As I mention above, more cars and trucks are now on the road almost everywhere. What was rural is now often suburban. What was suburban remains suburban -- and much of it wasn't well-designed for bike-riding in the first place.
Many schools have been relocated from the heart of in-town neighborhoods to the outskirts of communities. School buildings and parking lots have supplanted farm fields, and the average distance between the home and the classroom has increased. This has made bike-riding to school more difficult.
Other factors? Nearly all of our cities are more crowded than ever. We all know about the perils caused by distracted drivers as they text, drink coffee, fix hair in a rearview mirror and fail to pay full attention to the road.
One of the most disturbing barriers, of course, is that kids today are more likely to be sedentary, out of shape, and less able to muster the energy to even push the pedals. Kids are also more likely to be driven from scheduled event to scheduled event from the moment school ends. Spontaneous after-school play in the neighborhood: What's that?
Riding Revival... and a Few Tips
Despite these obstacles, bike-riding to school is enjoying a promising revival. Thousands of miles of new bike paths, trail networks, and safe crossings have been built in the last decade, coast to coast. More than 12,000 U.S. schools have added bike racks and launched Safe Routes to School programs that encourage, educate and support kids in pedaling to the classroom. Bike equipment for children has improved significantly.
Safe routes to school for kids are actually safe routes for everyone -- all day, every day. The outcome of all these projects is a significant increase in the number (and the quality) of bike trips in all 50 states. Nevertheless, so much more work needs to be done: The bike-riding experience remains far from ideal in too many cities and towns. (At PeopleForBikes.org, we're working on this every day. You can help by signing our online pledge in support of safer, better bike-riding. You can also read more about what needs to be done at saferoutespartnership.org.)
The strategy for riding to school begins with finding a safe, easy-to-navigate route -- again, this is not always an easy task. Pay close attention to essential equipment: Bike tires should be fully inflated, bikes and school bags should feature reflectors, and a properly-fitted helmet is a must. All children should learn the basic rules of the road and the hand signals that tell other road and path users what you're doing.
Many parents feel comfortable supporting biking to school only when they're serving as escorts. That's why the "bicycle train" concept has become so popular. One parent begins by leaving home on bikes with one or more children, then rolls through the neighborhood to pick up additional kids, and often parents, on bikes. Having at least one parent at the front and back of the group throughout the ride is reassuring, safety-enhancing, and helpful in teaching kids essential riding skills. The bicycle train really works.
Beyond all discussions of equipment, planning, safety training (and even the societal benefits), the essence of bicycling is still the joy of the ride. That's what I remember from my childhood... and that's what every child today deserves to know, too.
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