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Are Schools Part of the Bicycling Problem?

Digging deeper into the question of why bicycling riding isn’t a more common mode of transportation, a look at schools and students provides some insight.

The subject under discussion is why bicycle ridership isn’t higher in the U.S. The low usage of bicycles harms urbanism because bicycling has a far lower impact on urban settings than cars.

In my previous post, I re-introduced a pair of articles by writers who argue that helmet laws are impeding the acceptance of bicycling by making it seem more dangerous that it is. Their cases are largely anecdotal and not definitively proven, but strong enough that they can’t be readily dismissed.

(Note: It’s possible to simultaneously believe that helmet laws slow the acceptance of bicycling and that helmets provide a safety benefit. I’m one of those who does exactly that.)

But surely helmet laws aren’t the sole reason for low bicycle ridership. Starting today, I’ll offer some observations of my own and of others about bicycle use. Starting with schools and bicycle use by youths. 

My wife and I live on a busy local street that is less than a half-mile from three different public schools, an elementary, a junior high, and a high school. I asked her how many children she’s seen riding bicycles to school. She thought it over and then offered "Two or three." My observation is about the same.  So between us, we’ve seen no more than six students bicycling to school. Total. We’ve lived on this street for over seven years.That is an abysmal rate of acceptance by what could be a prime bike-riding demographic.

Nor was the acceptance rate much better when I was young. I remember riding a bike to school frequently when I was in fourth and fifth grades, but otherwise not much. (Admission: I took many rides to and from school because I played the baritone horn. The baritone is behind only the tuba and string bass as a bike unfriendly instrument. Yes, I was a band geek.)

In high school, I don’t recall many students at all riding bicycles. I don’t remember any overt comments, but the general perception of the student body seemed to be that only misfits rode bikes. Even on days when I knew I had no other option for getting home, I’d take the bus to school and walk home, which was a 2-1/2 mile hike. In retrospect, it seems crazy, but at the time it seemed the correct decision. It may have also been the socially acceptable decision among my peers.

It wasn’t that we didn’t have bicycles. We certainly did. I remember friends bicycling to my house for fishing expeditions to a nearby river. I remember joining large groups of friends for long bicycle rides during spring break. But bicycles were firmly in the category of recreational equipment, not tools of everyday living.

Nor has the situation improved in the forty years since I graduated. In fact, it has gotten worse. This story from Bicycling recounts the battle by a Saratoga Springs, New York mother for her son to be allowed to ride his bike to middle school. It’s a long article that covers a lot of ground, but it provides many solid insights into the state of bicycling in the U.S.

And then there is this report from Atlantic Cities about a Michigan high school that suspended students for engaging in the dangerous practice of riding bicycles to school.

I’m not arguing that the failure of schools to encourage bicycling or the failure of students to adopt bicycling is the reason for the low usage of bicycles in the U.S. But I do think that the two failures are symptomatic of a bigger problem. Under-utilized or non-existent bicycle racks at schools are canaries in the mine shaft. This will provide the topic for my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and four dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Anthony October 26, 2012 at 04:06 PM
You have to think like a student: Your given hours of homework, your at home studing and doing homework. You are up late because you need to get it all done for the 6 classes you have tomorrow. Why the hell would you want to wake up (which is bad enough) and then RIDE a bike early in the morning to go to school, which you don't want to be at anyways. You can do that, or you can get in a nice heated car, have a coffee and be comfortable :)
Dave Alden October 30, 2012 at 07:06 PM
Anthony, thanks for reading and commenting. I'm sure that your feelings are shared by many of your fellow students. But not all. Some students may not have a car. Others may live in a home where a parent has taken the family car to a place of work long before school. And still others may enjoy the freedom of the bike ride or a brisk walk between home and school. I know the last because in my days as a young professional, I lived about a half-mile from a BART station from which I commuted to San Francisco every day. I could have driven my car to the BART parking lot. There was plenty of free parking. But I probably didn't drive more than three days a year. I enjoyed that half-mile walk as break between my ten-hour days in an office and my evenings of cooking, cleaning, and studying for professional exams. Besides, you should be pleased if some of your fellow students choose to walk or to bike to school. For every one, there's one fewer car on the road as you try to reach first period in time.

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