Currently, 12 percent of American children bike or walk to school, down from 48 percent in 1969.
In elementary school, my weekdays were bookended by a half-mile ride down a curvy suburban sidewalk. By high school, my commute was 10 miles down a winding shoulderless road that was actually named Racetrack Road.
That’s when I stopped riding my bike to school.
The statistics show I was actually more fortunate than today’s kids, many who will go their entire lives without riding or walking to school. The number of kids riding or walking to school today has plummeted to 12 percent, down from 48 percent in 1969, according to surveys by the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS).
When kids aren’t walking or biking to school, they’re hopping into a passenger seat?the number of kids getting dropped off in a car has increased by 33%. The percentage of students traveling by bus remained steady.
These statistics are startling.
At least they would be if I didn’t have a kid who will begin kindergarten next year. The thought of him riding his bike the mile from our house to our neighborhood school is enough to make me strap him into the minivan for life.
And I’m no wimp when it comes to biking. I’ve been a bike enthusiast for two decades, work in the bike industry, and even have a bike hanging over my dining room table. Still, I can’t imagine my son riding his bike to school.
(For the sake of full disclosure, I also can’t imagine him driving a car or wearing whatever generation’s tacky fads are back into fashion. I can’t even imagine him not answering back when Dora the Explorer asks to hear his favorite part of the adventure.)
But back to biking. I?a hardened drinker of the bike Kool-Aid who lives in one of the most bike-friendly towns in the country (Boulder, Colorado)?am nervous about my kid riding to school by himself. I worry the major roads he must cross and the distracted, texting, facebooking, and not paying attention drivers he might have to dodge.
I’m not alone. Sixty percent of parents cite distance as the main barrier to riding, followed by 30 percent citing traffic-related danger. These are real concerns spawned by the increase of suburban living, cities that haven’t planned for biking, and the reality of putting schools on the outskirts of town where land is cheaper and more available.
It’s not that parents want to deny kids the thrill of riding to school. We just want them to arrive at school in one piece.
National Bike to School Day is a great way to encourage your kids to ride to school.
I struggle with my hesitation because I understand the benefits of riding a bike to school. A study of nearly 20,000 Danish children ages 5-19 showed that walking or biking to school improved concentration and puzzle solving skills for up to four hours. Biking or walking to school had even more of an impact on kids’ ability to concentrate than what the students ate for breakfast and lunch.
Fortunately, many people, school districts, and programs are working to overcome the barriers to biking and walking to school. Parent-initiated bike trains and walking school buses address concerns about younger kids traveling roads alone. The Green Lane Project focuses on developing cost-effective ways to integrate separated bike routes into existing infrastructure. The Safe Routes to School Program?whose federal funding is in jeopardy?coordinated a National Bike to School Day in May that brought out tens of thousands of student riders at more than 1,700 schools across the country.
And that’s good news. After all, it’s not about making walking or riding a good option only for students who live close to school. It would be nice for it to be an option that worked for students everywhere. It would be even better if the thought of letting your kid ride or walk to school didn’t turn a parent’s hair grey.
We’ll save that for high school.
At the end of 2012, there were more than 100 miles of protected bike lanes on the ground in the U.S. This number is expected to double by the end of 2013.
Kristin Butcher is a freelance writer based out of Boulder, Colorado, she spends her time writing about people, the outdoors and, of course, bikes. You can read her column, Butcher Paper, in BIKE Magazine.