Friday, September 21, 2012

Bikes at School: A Pleasure to See

As I was going by a local grade school on an errand this morning, I noticed something very enjoyable: a little cluster of perfectly-graduated bicycles in the racks. I’m not sure if they had been placed there intentionally that way for some sort of demonstration, but there they were, in serried rank of ascending order. I had to take a picture.

This scene had another element that was both pleasing and hopeful. This school has developed a student/parent/staff-tended garden, which continues to expand in size and attractiveness. Lots of education is taking place in conjunction with this garden. The bikes are, appropriately, parked by the garden. It is sort of a harmonious scene: two responses to the need for a saner, cleaner, healthier, more holistic life. The pumpkin patch next to the bikes must surely rate as one of—if not the most—sincere pumpkin patches in Salem—shades of The Peanuts. Perhaps the Great Pumpkin will rise there on Halloween? Only a very patient person (or a blockhead) can tell.

On a more serious note, though, this scene also brings up another thought. Why are there so few bikes? Yes, the ones that are present are cool and practical (as well as representing part of the increased diversity of bikes in Salem noted in a recent post over on Salem Breakfast on Bikes). But, there aren’t that many for a school this size. Biking to school was once common, but is now rare to see in many places. Some schools have even removed their bike racks, or made them nearly inaccessible, clearly stating the “un-coolness” of biking to school.

I have a friend who works in another elementary school here in Salem who saw a picture of that school taken back in the 1970’s. The bike racks are crammed full. Today, that same school (still in a neighborhood with many children, and with few major changes in streets or driving conditions) has a much smaller bike rack that rarely has many bikes in it at all. Her explanation: a combination of the psychology of fear, increased sedentation, and the perception that bicycling is for “poor kids.” So, now, each day there is a major traffic snarl around the school while many parents transport their children a few blocks to and from home.

All of these factors probably play into the paucity of bikes at the school I passed by today, but as I see various elementary schools at drop-off or pick-up times, I really do wonder how many of those kids being bussed, dropped off, or picked up, could actually bike to school much of the year if their parents were to organize the kinds of practical support needed—and found—in other cities (think bike trains in Portland)? Given the epidemic in childhood obesity, not to mention the benefit of allowing kids to blow off some steam coming back from school most days, it would seem logical to make biking to school a top priority for the same district that is providing huge amounts of breakfasts and lunches—often of a fairly caloric nature.

We know that attitudes towards physical activity are largely set by childhood norms and experiences. In a number of European countries, real efforts have been made to re-introduce cycling to young people as the normative way to get to school and travel short-to-moderate distances. The result of such modest investment has been a lot of healthy young people, and a life-long integration of practicality, exercise, transportation, and community. Getting kids to bike to school has benefits reaching far beyond their neighborhood or their early years.

If we wait for a revival of student biking to come from the central office of the Salem-Keizer School District, we would probably grow old in our patience (and, perhaps, be liable to being called blockheads). So, I suspect that just as the school in question pioneered a community garden, so they (and others in town) will have to pioneer a process of making biking to school cool, attractive, and normal once more—themselves.

I’m interested. It would be a pleasure to see that once more.


  1. Another good post U. C. When I was a kid I walked to elementary school everyday and biked to Junior High. Back then parents didn't seem to even consider driving their kids to school. I don't think it was any more safe back then. We need some enlightened principals and teachers to promote this in their schools.

  2. Thanks, Jim. I think the cycling/livability revolution here--and most places--simply has to come from below. Sure, it is great to have various institutions help out or even take the lead from time to time, but only a local school (in this instance) could really grasp the situation on the ground and figure out the most appropriate way to incentivize cycling. A general policy at the District level would be helpful, but it will take creativity in our schools to figure out how to make cycling cool...and while trivial sounding, that is exactly what would make the change. Seeing others do it makes all the difference. It would be interesting to work with others on how that could be brought about, and what has worked in other cities.

  3. Beech Elementary in Portland has seemed to be the most striking example of a turn around from biking being banned at Beech, to huge bike trains.

    When the BTA was active in Salem, there was a Bicycle Safety Education program at between 4 to 6 schools every year. It went dormant for a variety of reasons and there are efforts to get it going again - especially as there is a bike fleet in Salem for this purpose. There was a meeting last week, and perhaps one of the participants will drop by and share an update.

    In the meantime, folks are planning some bike events and education for the 29th, including a ride from this school.

    Walk+Bike to School Day is October 3rd, and some schools participate in this. This school is also working on a Safe Routes to School plan. I think you'll be seeing more activity there this school year! Maybe a better rack installation, too.

    And you should get a hold of that photo from the 70s and do a then/now comparison!

    Anyway, others will know more about bicycling and schools, about resistance at the District level, and other details, and I hope they drop by!

  4. That's great information, SBOB. Wow, what don't you know about cycling in town?! I'll try to run down that photo. I'm told it speaks volumes.

    It sounds like the Bicycle Safety Education program you mention is the key to much of what it takes to make cycling "work" in schools and communities. It is frequently mentioned in the literature here and abroad. I wonder what it would take to make this happen now? I'm actually interested in how to help with this one.

    I think there are some good candidate schools in SKSD for bike trains, and I hope that will come to pass. We have to get over the fear factor for this to move from theory to reality.