Everyone in Massachusetts should have the option to ride his or her bike safely. This is especially true for young, school-aged riders. The benefits of getting kids on bikes are big: healthier kids, less air pollution, and a larger cycling community that can encourage infrastructure changes such as new bike lanes or paths.
But one of the best reasons to help more school-aged children ride is that we are building the next generation of cyclists. Every single kid who rides to school at age ten won’t be a road racer or a mountain biker, but he or she is more likely to use a bike to get somewhere nearby. By showing children that bicycles are a great (fun and fit!) method of transportation, we increase the odds that their generation will, as adults, ride a bike to run an errand or get to work or have fun.
Cyclists can relate to these reasons for encouraging young bicyclists. Caregivers for young children, however, often have safety concerns when it comes to riding bikes. That’s where Safe Routes to School comes in. Safe Routes to School (SRTS) is a federally-funded program that provides children safety training and information about biking and walking to school. In Massachusetts, MassDOT manages MassRIDES, the state Safe Routes to School program. MassBike offers the bicycling education component here, while WalkBoston works with the walking side. MassBike has educated over 11,000 kids about bike safety and using bikes for transportation. This year, MassBike will increase that number by educating kids at 100 schools through Safe Routes to School.
The SRTS partner schools come in all shapes, sizes, and locations throughout the state. Communities from Worcester to Brockton to Easthampton participate in this program. Urban, suburban, and rural schools can all benefit from SRTS. In a typical Safe Routes to School class focused on biking, kids spend 45 minutes with one of our instructors learning
• Why to ride: Fun, health, and the environment
• Helmet safety: How and why to wear a helmet
• Proper attire: The right clothes for safe, comfortable biking
• Basic maintenance: Age-appropriate bike care, such as putting air in tires
• Road rules: The right way to ride in their neighborhood
Recently, Kali Paine, one of MassBike’s Safe Routes to School instructors, taught fourth and fifth graders at the Marion E. Zeh School in Northborough. There she found that although only a few kids told her they currently bike to school, they became increasingly excited about riding for transportation during her classes. She was encouraged because, as opposed to her usual 60 to 70 percent, “When asked how many liked to bike at the beginning of each class, nearly every student rose [his or her] hand.” At the Zeh school the students also had an especially enthusiastic response to safety elements in the class. According to Paine, they even became interested in wearing helmets after she spoke about helmet safety and proper fit.
Paine was especially thrilled that “The teachers at [the Zeh] school were also pretty engaged in the content.” She added that it will be helpful if “the parents…take a good look at the handouts that were sent home and encourage their kids to bike more!”
Laura Smeaton, another Safe Routes to School instructor with MassBike, agrees that “Parent and teacher engagement is key, because these are the adults kids look up to every day.” Smeaton also found recently that an emphasis on fun is important in her classes. At her visit last week to the fifth graders of Claypit Hill School in Wayland, kids told her that they enjoy riding, which helped Smeaton to show them that this fun activity could be used to get places. Once introduced to the idea, the fifth graders especially liked that they could achieve increased independence on their bikes.
The challenge in a community like Wayland is the lack of sidewalks. Smeaton noted that safety concerns on big roads with no bike paths or sidewalks make parents less likely to allow their kids to ride to school on their own. In fact, only one student had ridden to school the day she was there, although many of them already loved and knew a lot about their bikes. When the opportunity for riding for transportation is a bigger leap, as in Wayland, Smeaton recommends a bikepool. “You can have eight to ten kids with one or two adults,” she said, “and you help the kids ride safely.” Having a bikepool also shows a need for infrastructure improvements in communities without good bicycling and pedestrian options.
As seen in Northborough and Wayland, the opportunities and challenges are different in every community. Kids in urban areas might need help learning how to deal with heavy traffic, while those in rural or suburban communities might need, as in Wayland, to start a bikepool for safe riding.
Any SRTS partner school can request this free class about bicycling safety. To become a Safe Routes to School partner school, or to help your child’s school become one, apply on the MassRIDES website here (pdf).
If you are a parent looking for more information on helping your child safely ride his or her bike, see the Safe Routes to School resources on our website.