School has begun for most systems in our area, and that means kids who live too close to school to be bussed are walking or biking there again. However, the financial straits of many towns and cities mean that some districts, like Goshen Community Schools, have cut back on the areas buses will serve due to lack of funds. Specifically, Goshen’s school board enforced a one-mile walk zone – that is, the distance from a home to school where student must walk.
Most educators say walking or biking to school, though not strenuous, is good exercise and improves a student’s mental and physical health, while freeing up parents to go to work. At the same time, some parents fear for the safety of their children when they walk or bike to school. They are concerned that young children will make bad decisions about crossing the street or not stopping at intersections. The possibility of someone enticing a child into a car is also a risk parents consider when they send a child off to walk to school alone.
Consequently, the parents of children who are not bussed to school often drive them to school. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible because of work schedules. In that case, parents must choose between allowing their children to walk to school alone, arranging a carpool with other parents (if they can find them) or changing to a job that allows them to drive their children to and from school.
Two alternatives to consider in this situation are a walking school bus or a bike train. Both work on the same principle: A group of kids walks or bikes together from home to school, frequently accompanied by adults.
Since this is a cycling blog, I’ll concentrate on the bike train, but let me mention that the best place to find resources for a walking school bus is The National Center for Safe Routes to School’s (SRTS) website. You can download a six-page PDF that outlines the steps for starting a Safe Routes to School Program.
SRTS defines a walking school bus as “a group of children walking to school with one or more adults. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school or as formal as a well-planned walking route with meeting points, a timetable and a regularly rotated schedule of trained volunteers.”
A bike train is a similar concept. Bicycling magazine defines a bike train as “an organized group made up of children and adults who ride their bikes to and from school along an established route.” Not everyone needs to start together. You can pick up students along the way at designated “stations,” as a real train does.
What are the benefits of a bike train?
- By getting kids active, it helps them be more physically fit and mentally alert.
- It promotes self-reliance among junior and senior high students who are not old enough to drive.
- It improves air quality by having fewer cars on the road.
- It can relieve some of the congestion around schools when many parents drop off or pick up their children.
- It’s cheaper than driving the kids to and from school every day.
On the first point, there is no doubt that today’s kids are less fit than they were in the past. Seventeen percent of children and adolescents are obese, a figure that has tripled since 1980, according to Bicycling magazine. Meanwhile, the percentage of kids who walk or ride to school as plunged in the past 40 years. In 1969, 48 percent of kids walked or biked to school; today that figure is 13 percent, Bicycling magazine said.
How do you start a bike train? As I said, SRTS’ website has an excellent guide for creating a program in seven steps. It involves committees, public meetings and considerable planning. I’m sure it’s a good guide, but I fear the level of organizing suggested might scare off many parents.
I don’t think an elaborate plan is necessary. I suggest a simpler approach:
- Check with the school to see if it has bike racks where you can lock the students’ bikes. Nothing kills a program for biking like getting a bike stolen at school because there was nothing to lock it to.
- Scope out a possible route on the street or a bike path from your neighborhood to school.
- Ride the route on a bicycle yourself to see what the obstacles are (i.e., things like intersections without traffic lights).
- Map out a route and try it with your children.
- Talk to the parents of children in your neighborhood and see what interest there is and explain the bike-train concept.
- Do test runs in the morning and afternoon when kids would use the bike train to see the level of traffic.
- Meet with those interested and talk about basic safety rules like riding on the right side of the road with traffic, riding single file, stopping at stop signs and giving hand signals for turning and stopping. Or better yet, have a cycling instructor talk to the group about basic safety rules. If you’re interested in that, contact me at email@example.com.
- Identify parents or older kids who can lead the group each week.
- Require everyone to wear a helmet.
- Set a starting date, establish meeting points or pick up locations and start riding.
How old should children be to join a bike train? SRTS suggests limiting the train to students in the upper elementary grades, usually age 10 and above. Below 10, children have a difficult time judging the speed and distance of cars. Ideally, the train should have an adult at the beginning and the end. Teens should be able to ride without adults.
Of course, there are limitations. Riding in the rain is problematic, riding through ice and snow can be dangerous and the late sunrise due to daylight saving time is also an issue in the fall.
If the school board and PTO would get behind a Safe Routes to School walking or biking program, that would be ideal. If not, there’s no reason parents can’t make it happen themselves.