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Hearing eco-friendly exhortations, and eager to do their part, some kids see cycling as a fun way to pitch in. Still, for many parents, letting young people cycle in traffic is a frightening prospect.
By Chris Keam
In 1969, 48 percent of American kids walked or cycled to school. By 2009, that number dropped to 13 percent. Figures since then have remained stable; children are still pedaling down streets and biking to school. One reason for this may be their parents and teachers, another may be messages spread by the mass media. Hearing eco-friendly exhortations, and eager to do their part, some kids see cycling as a fun way to pitch in. Still, for many parents, letting young people cycle in traffic is a frightening prospect. Too many communities are barely bike-friendly enough for adults, let alone children.
Thankfully, education, cycling clubs and kids are proving to be a powerful combination, removing fears and creating a new generation of pedal pushers. In addition, the specters of gridlocked transportation networks, childhood obesity and climate change are further convincing the public and policy-makers alike that getting kids on bikes is an important, if not urgent, step towards creating sustainable and healthy communities.
“One of the things we’re finding is we need to teach kids and parents together,” said Wendy Kallins, program director for the Marin County-based Safe Routes to Schools. Formed six years ago, the group works to create kid-friendly infrastructure along the many road systems that border American schools. “One of the biggest impediments to getting kids on bikes is getting parents on bikes,” added Kallins. “For parents who are not cyclists, everything seems dangerous.”
Danger is often a deterrent for worried parents. Riders under the age of 16 accounted for 13 percent of all fatalities in 2008, according to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report, with kids between the ages of 13 and 15 cited as being particularly at risk. However, one mother thinks we need to give kids more freedom and trust their ability to make sensible choices.
“What I always wonder,” said Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Children, “is do parents think their kids are so much less competent than they were?”
There are obvious situations where cycling for transportation can be unsafe for kids, particularly in exurbs where freeways and major roads are the only links between isolated homes and community amenities, such as schools and parks. When it means children can’t use bikes for getting around, however, Skenazy believes kids and parents both lose.
“Why wouldn’t you want your kid to gain some independence, have some fun, get some exercise and get themselves to school?” Skenazy asked. “As someone once wrote to me, there’s not a prize for the most exhausted parent!”
Many groups recognize the need to accommodate and encourage young transportation cyclists. Kidical Mass, described as a legal, safe and fun ride for kids, is presently bringing young families together for group cycling adventures in 12 cities in the US and Canada – Pecs, Hungary, launched the first Euro-version in 2009. Trips for Kids began in Marin County, CA, in the late 1980s. The non-profit organization takes at-risk kids out of the city for mountain biking trips. More than 60,000 kids have participated and the organization now has over 60 chapters in the US and Canada, plus an overseas chapter in Israel.
Tyrone “Baybe Champ” Stevenson spawned a whole new cycling subculture of scraper kids who co-opt the big wheels and flashy rims of scraper cars for their customized bikes. The Oakland, CA, scraper movement began as a program that gave youth an alternative to drugs and gangs, encouraged them to do well in school and taught them how to deck out their bikes. The movement is now taking root as far afield as Germany.
There is still a gap between what kids’ bikes should be and where they are, but it seems the industry is noticing. Parents are looking for the same features in kids’ bikes that they value in their own bikes. Opus Bicycles is at the forefront of this shift, unveiling a complete line of aluminum frame kids’ bikes for 2010.
“Lighter, performance kids’ bikes is absolutely a trend,” said Rob White, vice president of sales for Outdoor Gear Canada (parent company of Opus). Not only are the frames lighter, bikes for youth are now coming equipped with the same amenities as their bigger cousins.
Opus’s Rambler, a 24-inch aluminum frame urban bike for youth, comes complete with the rack and fenders now standard on many adult-sized commuter models. White also points to the pedal-less, push-bike as an important factor, creating a generation of children who are skipping the tricycle and moving straight to two wheels, albeit without pedals.
Still, the very design of our towns and cities can be a roadblock for kids who want to take their transportation needs into their own hands.
Richard Gilbert is a Toronto transportation analyst working on developing child-friendly land-use and transport planning guidelines for cities across North America. One of his key recommendations: make sure kid-friendly routes to community amenities used by kids, such as pools, libraries, parks and schools exist so that youngsters can get there on their own. Too often, kids can’t reach their local community center without the help of “Mom or Dad’s Taxi.”
Wide adoption of Gilbert’s guidelines will require big policy and funding changes. In the meantime, he has practical advice for parents who want to ensure bike trips are a manageable distance for children.
“Kids can bike far, if they want to,” said Richard. “A kilometer for each year of age is an easy recreational ride, but halve that or less for a functional ride (where something, like school, has to be done at the other end). With training, an eight year old can have good traffic sense and skills. Without training, parents might well worry about a 12 year old.”
“If there was more education out there … it would help so many people,” said David Pulsipher, who rides in Culver City, CA, with his toddler, George. A planner by trade and cycling dad by nature, Pulsipher’s experiences inspired him to start a blog: Kids. Bikes. Dads. “With today’s economy, it seems like every family is looking for ways to save money and spend more time together. The bicycle is a double whammy in that regard.”
Cycling education is still largely dependent on parents and (mostly) volunteer efforts. Yet, navigating our transportation networks is another crucial skill in the modern age, and just as deserving of public funding. If governments are going to ask individuals of all ages to “do their part” when it comes to reducing our reliance on car travel, those who control the public purse-strings must also shoulder their portion of the burden. That means having the fortitude to spend money on kid-friendly road networks and comprehensive traffic safety education, and having the courage to stand up for those who can’t cast a vote.
A Portrait of a Young Cyclist
A new generation raised on riding, starting out in child seats, trailers and trail-a-bikes are graduating to their own bicycles. My eight-year-old daughter Madeleine is one of those kids. She and I often use a trail-a-bike to get to school and ballet classes (two kilometers and five kilometers one way, respectively); and, increasingly, she rides her own bike for trips to the local library, supermarket or nearby parks (five-10 blocks). While the responses below have a healthy dose of “What does Dad want to hear?” I think her answers also show that getting kids to ride for transportation is mostly about making that choice a normal part of their lives.
CK: What do you think about when we ride when it’s raining?
MLK: I wish I was still in my trailer. I try to count raindrops and feel happy.
CK: How soon do you think before you are ready to ride to school by yourself?
MLK: I would say 12.
CK: How old will you be when you stop riding a bike?
MLK: At least 89. If I live up to that (age).