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.