Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Are Schools Part of the Bicycling Problem?

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 (

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