America doesn’t make it easy.
A recent finding from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association is making the rounds. Perhaps you’ve read it.
Here’s one such statement from The Washington Post
“The number of children ages 6 to 17 who rode bicycles regularly — more than 25 times a year — decreased by more than a million from 2014 to 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. That includes both casual rides around the neighborhood and more serious cycling for fitness or competition.
And from 2018 to 2019, children’s bicycle sales decreased 7% in dollars and 7.5% in bikes sold, a drop serious enough that retailers have already goosed prices to make up for lower demand, according to market research firm NPD Group.”
I know that most of the people reading this are in the choir, so I don’t think I need to beat my chest about it. Plenty have already shared the article above, or something similar.
What bothers me is that, despite the loud chorus, few are doing anything about it. Slacktivism. (By all means, share this article. But that isn’t enough.)
Exhorting kids to ride bikes makes no sense. Even if they’re your own. Telling other grownups to make their kids ride bikes also makes no sense. They’re not going to listen to you.
I think people are failing to appreciate the scope of the problem. It’s a big one. Cyclists deal with it on a daily basis, but we’re collectively not realizing that the obstacles we face are even greater for non-cyclists. America today isn’t exactly designed to make bike riding easy. Yes, the idea of kids riding around is a golden-hued memory of an America that might have existed long ago. But it was possible because roads were designed differently and life was designed differently.
It’s also probably largely false. Kids bikes were largely treated as toys, not legitimate transit, for much of the 20th century. And adults generally didn’t like seeing kids riding bikes on roads once cars were the dominant form of adult transit, which was established around the same time that bikes became cheap enough for people of modest means to give to a child.
Look at the road system in the US. Bike riding on wide, straight, high speed limit roads is rarely fun, and it’s often not a good idea. Roads that have been built or improved to maximize motorized vehicle movement are often the roads that take people places, especially in communities that were built or grown after World War Two. Most adults probably don’t want kids riding on a four- or six-lane road with a 45mph speed limit. Most adults probably don’t want kids riding on a 45mph speed limit road at all,
Those roads are often the ones that convey kids to school. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released the results of their 2017 National Household Travel Survey in March, and examined how kids, ages 5-17 get to school. Of the 50 million or so kids traveling to school in the US, about seven percent live within a half mile. Another 23% live between a half-mile and a mile. 18% live between one and two miles. That totals 47% live within what is easy riding distance, if we’re being generous. That means 53% don’t. On the other end of the spectrum, about nine percent live at least 11 miles from their school.
Overall, 10.4% walk or ride to school. But that number is at 81% if it’s less than a quarter-mile. It drops to 56% if the trip is between a quarter- and half-mile, down to 25% if the distance is between a half-mile and a mile. If the distance is between one and two miles, the number is down to seven percent.
It’s a precipitous-seeming drop when compared to 2001. In that survey, the FHWA found 16% of students walked or rode to school. But the drop is even more dramatic if you go back to their 1969 survey. In 1969, 42% of kids walked or rode to school.
Of course, in 1969, 45% of all students lived within a mile of school. And many had a parent who didn’t work. By 2001, the number was 25%. It looks like more kids are within that magic mile today, though not by much. Also,in 1967, only 25% of mothers were working outside the home. By 2015, that number was at 64%.
School is just one part of a kid’s life. There are also after-school activities. And these are becoming more popular, both the parent-chauffeured kind and in-school programs. Over 10 million kids are enrolled in after-school programs, whether out of a desire for enrichment or a need for childcare. And parents would like to see another 20 million enrolled.
It’s entirely within expectation that kids, even those who live within easy riding distance of their schools, are leaving home by 7:30am and not returning until 6pm. It’s hard to see parents being cool with their kids riding to or from school, or both, in the dark, for several months of the school year.
And the weekends aren’t necessarily any easier. If their activities or friends aren’t within two miles, maybe only a mile, on what parents perceive as safe roads, are many kids going to want to ride? Are their parents going to suggest they ride, or even let them if the kids want to go by bike?
We’re also stuck in a chicken-and-egg problem. Parents often make a classic trade-off of greater distances for larger homes—if they can afford to make a tradeoff at all. They probably don’t ride places to begin with, for distance, time, or safety reasons. So, even though they buy bikes for their kids, they don’t provide their kids places to ride, or encouragement, because they fear the road system and drivers thanks to the very choices they made.
That people aren’t riding is often used by anti-bike decision makers not to do anything. They don’t think people should ride, because it’s dangerous, but they don’t want to make the roads safer, because there aren’t enough people riding.
I think if we’re to turn this around, there has to be an effort to change not only roads, but a good bit of life for kids and possibly their parents. It’s going to take a while, and we’re probably going to have to go with small steps. President Obama said something about “we being the change we seek.” We need more “we.”
There is much to do, and I don’t want to get in the way of visions and creative thinking. That written, from my saddle, it seems that getting more kids riding to school is a perfect place to start. It not only is a place kids have to go 180 or more times in a year, it’s also run by people who are supposed to be looking out for kids, including their health.
Getting kids to exercise more is something that is promoted just about everywhere. The federal government is also promoting kids using their own power to travel to school through their safe routes to school program. It includes grant money. Cities and states are also setting aside funds. New York City offers free bicycle racks to schools through NYCDOT (I’ll have more on this at a later date). New Jersey has its own state-level program for safe routes to school.
I’m thinking a solid first step is making sure there are modern bike racks at schools, rec centers, ballfields, libraries, any place kids go. The old comb-style rack isn’t terribly secure; adults wouldn’t want to lock a “good” bike to a rack where the only way to secure the bike is with a thin cable, we shouldn’t expect that parents would feel comfortable having their kids lock up bikes there either.
To me, an unused bike rack in a high-visibility spot calls attention to bike riding. Just like an empty rockstar parking spot; it’s begging to be used.
Cyclists also have to walk the walk. We need to ride more places, and encourage, cajole, shame other adults into doing the same. Being weird is ok; being weird and a good-natured evangelist for bikes even better. And then we have to work on kids. Volunteer to lead bike riding classes anyplace you know you can get a captive kid audience—schools, places of worship, rec centers, and so on. We need to imagine and illuminate the bike world for them, as they don’t necessarily have the same vision as we do.
There’s some good news that can make bike-ifying a bit easier. Namely, young adults are interested in urban life, and even people who are having kids and are considering moving out of cities are more interested in places where certain urban attributes, like the ability to not totally depend on a car. So both residents and forward-thinking cities are probably either thinking bike or will be open to such ideas.
Even if you’re the selfish type, you’ve got a dog in this fight as well. The people you turn from haters, to bike-skeptics, to bike-neutral, to pro-bike, could make you safer on the road. We all could use more awareness from drivers and pedestrians, and whether those drivers and peds are cyclists themselves, or at least sympathetic to cyclists, is a life or death matter. Getting cars off the road is even better. The carbon-fueled lifestyle of the past 70 years is unsustainable, expensive, and destroying our habitats, and contributing to unhealthy living.
Cyclists can feel like libertarians, but the truth is, we need society, and society needs us to lead the way, even if they don’t know it yet.
Nota Bene: The featured image at the top of the page is allegedly Oregon kids riding to school in 1974. I came across it as I was researching Creative Commons images (I wish I had a budget to pay for photos). The only info I could find on the picture is that it was taken to illustrate that the gas crisis of that year meant that the school these kids went to couldn’t afford to take them by bus. So they rode to and from school in all weather, even doing field trips by bike.