Growing Up Velo: Next Generation Cyclists

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).

7 Comments

  • Glenn Charles

    You can’t help but wonder at the correlation between the rise in serious childhood obesity and the decline in the physical activity of our youth. This article puts into perspective how the simple act of riding a bike as a child has gone from being the ‘thing we did’ to a piece of history. The decline in physical activity of our youth is only one of the contributing factors in the Childhood Obesity epidemic, but surely it is a large one.

    I will be setting out on a bike tour around the US this year, pedaling only a single speed, in honor of those simple days gone by. The goal is to help create awareness about the issue of Childhood Obesity and inspire some kids to get out and hop on a bike. Along the way I hope to raise over $11,000 for local charities that support getting our kids out and fit. It is only a dollar for each mile pedaled, but every little bit helps.

    As I travel the country I will be stopping in towns to do presentations and talks to both parents and kids about the benefits of getting out, getting fit, and riding a bike. You can read more about my upcoming adventure at: http://www.wabisabiyourlife.com.

    Great article, thanks!

  • ExecutiveCycling.com

    I was riding my bike to school with my sister in first grade and continued riding to school through high school. As young children we were able to navigate fairly busy streets and safely arrive at school. Young kids are amazing learners, sponges of information. Teach them the importance of good riding habits and they will obey. Many times a parents fear of riding in traffic or lack of cycling skills is projected on a child. Teaching parents to ride safely and in a straight line will help future generations cycle better. Nevertheless, drivers also need cycling education about how and where to spot cyclists. The hazards are out there. Awareness of the hazards avoiding them while riding and driving will make safer transportation for all of us.

  • Tim

    I have a summer camp in San Francisco dedicated to this very idea. Wheel Kids Bicycle Club caters to elementary school-age kids, providing them an opportunity to ride daily, learn critical riding and safety skills, conceive of bikes as transportation as well as fun, explore their environment by bike, and gain self-confidence and increased autonomy. Given insurance requirements, we limit our riding almost exclusively to bike paths, so we aren’t able to fully engage in the wide variety of urban cycling situations that are possible. Nonetheless, we feel we’re educating young riders who, in the future, will demand greater accessibility for bicycles and bicyclists. See more at http://wheelkids.com/

  • Ellis

    The statement above by Toronto transportation analyst Richard Gilbert reflects an uninformed view that puts children at risk: “With training, an eight year old can have good traffic sense and skills. Without training, parents might well worry about a 12 year old.”

    Parents might well worry about a 12 year old, but they should worry a great deal more about an eight year old, who is too young to have reliable focus, impulse control, or the ability to predict drivers’ actions in traffic. See this review study on pedestrian education:

    Duperrex O, Bunn F, Roberts I. Safety education of pedestrians for injury prevention: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ. 2002 May 11; 324(7346): 1129.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC107905/?tool=pubmed

    “…Our review indicates that there is no reliable evidence supporting the effectiveness of pedestrian education for preventing injuries in children and inconsistent evidence that it might improve their behaviour, attitudes, and knowledge. While the value of safety education of pedestrians remains in doubt, environmental modification and the enforcement of appropriate speed limits may be more effective strategies to protect children from road traffic.”

    Riding a bike in traffic is a far more complex and sustained sequence of actions compared to walking across a street. City ordinances often forbid children from riding on sidewalks, and even well engineered bike lanes are likely to pose too many risks for children. Non-cycling drivers often are unaware of cyclists’ legal rights and practical difficulties, such as the hazard of “dooring” by parallel parked cars, or of getting pasted by a driver making a right turn across a cyclist’s path.

    I agree with the poster, above, who advocates strong driver education about cyclists’ rights and vulnerabilities. I do not agree that such education warrants any reduction in the steps of a graduated licensing program, as if such a program were a punishment. Insurance companies will not likely offer any discount without strong evidence of a long-term savings for themselves.

    By all means, let’s teach children the rules of the road from an early age. But let’s keep them on tandem bikes till they can safely follow along in a straight line on their own bikes. Then let’s continue to accompany them in traffic till they’re well into adolescence. Riding a bike in traffic is a lot harder than driving a car in traffic–and a whole lot riskier.

  • Dwayne

    Hi! Here’s two ideas that I’d love to hear feedback on:

    1) Let’s make learning to ride a bike part of every kid’s Grade 5 phys-ed curriculum so that they learn to ride and/or learn the rules of the road then. For kids without bikes, I’m sure that there would be ways to find loaners or donations.

    2) Let’s make passing a certified cycling course the first step of a graduated car licensing program, by either:
    a) Making it mandatory for new drivers before they get behind the wheel of a car
    b) Make it voluntary but then reduce the length of subsequent steps of the graduated licensing regime for kids who passed a cycling course
    c) Offering discounted car insurance for kids who first did a cycling course.

    To my mind, both ideas would:
    a) Introduce more kids and youth to cycling (since many never even learn these days)
    b) Allow kids to learn the rules of the road and be confident cyclists
    c) Legitimize cycling as a “adult” way of travelling
    d) Allow kids to learn the rules of the road without being behind a deadly 2,000 pound machine
    e) Give new car drivers an appreciation of what it’s like to cycle even if they never touch a bike again.
    f) Persuade some kids to forgo getting their car license once they realize how much fun cycling is
    g) Create a sustainable demand for certified cycling courses
    h) Encourage more youth to buy adult-sized bikes and thus continue riding
    i) Get more bums on bike seats and wheels on the road

    But what do you think? Would it work? How might we make these two ideas work?

    Thanks, Dwayne (learningcycle.ca)

  • Grace

    Loved this story and we on Prince Edward Island are trying to get more folks of all ages cycling on the beautiful and safe Confederation Trail that runs from tip to tip. Join us for our fall Cycle East recreational event for all ages on October 1,2 & 3,2010. visit http://www.islandtrails.ca for information.

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