Finding Support for Families Bicycling to School

Organizations and schools are making a push to get more kids biking and walking to school.

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I get up extra early and take three bikes outside. It looks like another beautiful South Florida day for our two boys to ride their bikes to their school, two and a half miles away. We ride together because the journey makes our leg muscles stronger, helps the environment and saves gas money for ice cream, or so I’ve told my boys.

Some days I hesitate before we set off. I consider the motorists who we’ve seen not paying attention at intersections and others who park their tank-like cars on the sidewalk. Because biking to school isn’t the norm here, each ride feels like an achievement.

Today, my sons are extra excited to get on their bikes because it’s Walk and Bike to School Day at their private school. We expect to see some of their classmates on their bikes when on other days 99 percent of the families drive to school.

Events like Walk and Bike to School Day help encourage us (and other families) to keep biking. During these events my children will hear talks about road safety and the importance of environmental stewardship and daily physical activity. These lessons are important for both children and parents.

I’ve jumped into a bigger advocacy role to help make Miami more bike-friendly in school zones and I’m not alone. Federally funded programs, like Safe Routes to School (SRTS), are providing parents and teachers with the tools to encourage children to bike and walk more often. In Florida alone, SRTS has awarded $56 million in grants for changes to infrastructure and increased cycling education since the program began six years ago. Elsewhere, 19 states, including DC, are involved in a network that includes hundreds of organizations, government agencies and professional groups working together to set goals, share best practices, leverage infrastructure and program funding, and advance policy change to help agencies that implement SRTS programs.

Unfortunately, the transportation bill passed in June has cut dedicated funding for the SRTS program, placing its future in jeopardy, but in my search for ways to keep pushing for better infrastructure in Miami, I have found many other initiatives and advocacy groups across the country to inspire me. In New York City, there’s the wide-reaching Transportation Alternatives (TA), an advocacy organization that works toward better street access for those who cycle, walk, and take public transit. Their Bike Ambassadors meet with students in schools, during after-school programs and at camps to teach essential skills for getting around by bike.

“Kids are the most vulnerable street users,” said Miller Nuttle, TA Bicycle Advocate and former Bike Ambassador. “We teach them how to ride with confidence. They learn the traffic laws and how to plan the safest routes to school.”

In addition to teaching the skills needed to navigate city streets, Bike Ambassadors also meet with youth participants and engage them in earn-a-bike, ride club and fix-a-bike programs.

“It’s important to give New York City’s children easy access to bicycle education in the schools,” said Nuttle, who is in the process of convening the many stakeholders.

The National Center for Safe Routes to School has recognized Omro Middle School in Wisconsin for integrating bicycle education into its curriculum. The school has an on-site bike shop, a school bike share and a bike education program with 35 bikes for Physical Education classes, lunch break rides, and even a cyclocross course.

“You put tools in their hands and they just blossom,” said Omro Middle School Physical Education teacher and bike program director Joe Horvath. A passionate cyclist himself, he credits his administration and entire town with supporting these trailblazing endeavors, which he feels are encouraging safety, exercise and freedom.

“An eight-grade student came to me the other day and said ‘Now I don’t have to wait for my mom to take me to the public pool,’” said Horvath.

When I consider the many innovative programs engaging children and parents and getting them out of cars and onto bikes I see a bright future for my family and Miami.

Dina Weinstein is a Miami, FL-based journalist. She is working with the Miami transportation advocacy organization Green Mobility Network to recruit adult Safe Routes to School champions so kids and parents can get out of their cars together. Weinstein likes cycling in sandals in the tropical winter while the rest of North America is shivering.

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