The beginning of school is synonymous with new backpacks, pencils and books. But why can't it also be about bikes?
According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, 48 percent of students in 1969 walked or biked to school. By 2009, that number had dropped to 13 percent.
"A big barrier (to kids not biking or walking to school) is a lack of facilities," says Wendi Kallins, the program director for Safe Routes to School in Marin County, Calif. "In many suburban communities, you don't have sidewalks and you have wide streets. You get into a rural area, and schools are located on major highways. Drivers don't really look for pedestrians."
The Safe Routes to School in Marin County, run by the Transportation Authority of Marin, was one of the pilot programs in the nation back in 2000. Working with schools, public officials and parent volunteers, and using some federal funding, a Safe Routes to School program can be initiated into a community. The program educates students about safe walking and biking habits through classroom curriculum and also helps with safety by adding crossing guards and police forces around heavily trafficked areas.
In the first two years, the program Kallins oversees saw an increase from 21 percent to 38 percent of local students walking and biking to and from school. Now, within 50 schools encompassing about 20,000 kids, there is a 50 percent rate of students getting to school by walking or biking.
Kallins points out that the benefits of getting kids out of the car while on their way to school is threefold. Children learn to be active; traffic around schools abates; and the environmental impact of the short trips around the neighborhood decreases.
"You're creating these healthy habits early on," Kallins adds.
While there's no denying that there are many positive implications for having your kids commute differently, some parents may be hesitant to leave their car keys at home and take the time to walk or bike with their child to school. A common misconception says that driving to school with your kids is considered "quality time." But Kallins disagrees and says that walking or biking with your child is a much better way to interact with them and their friends. Parents can become an integral part of encouraging their children to continue to stay healthy and active on their way to school.
"For a parent who has the time and passion, leading a bike train can be a great incentive for their kids to ride to school because it means they'll get to ride with their friends and fellow students," says Nancy Pullen-Seufert, the associate director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School.
Bike trains are organized groups of student riders accompanied by adults. The train picks up students at designated stops along the route. This type of collaboration helps address parents' concerns about safety, which may be holding them back from allowing their child to ride.
But before starting a bike train or inspiring your child to take alternate means to school, bike safety education is the most important step. Assess your child's bike-handling skills and decision-making skills, like when to stop or cross the street. This ensures that not only will they be safe, but others around them, whether it is other riders, walkers or cars, are safe, as well.
"Parents need to talk with their child about whether they're allowed to ride alone, with other friends or only with a responsible adult. Then they'll want to plan the route to school," says Pullen-Seufert.
Parents should point out why helmets are so important and demonstrate how crucial it is to wear one, and parents should wear theirs at all times when on a bike. Setting a good example is a great way to get your kids to be safe.
Next, check your local school to see whether they have Safe Routes to School programs that you could get involved with. Programs like these often need volunteers and help from local parents. This also can help you and your child get to know people in your neighborhood and create a social bike network.
Whether you bike to school every day or once a month, keep the focus on how fun the activity is. Don't let small barriers get in your way.
"A story I really love is about a dad and his son who always bike together. It was science project day, so the dad hooked up a trailer to put the project in. They biked together and had the project in the back. They zoomed by all of the cars," says Kallins.