Kids just wanna ride bikes
August 30, 2010
During a period of unprecedented momentum for urban bicycling in the U.S., the Bikes Belong Foundation is leading a fact-finding trip to the Netherlands to bring home European transportation best practices. Eleven city leaders from the San Francisco Bay Area will spend a week in four Dutch cities between August 29 and September 4. This trip is part of Bikes Belong's Bicycling Design Best Practices Project.
Transportation writer and editor Jay Walljasper is accompanying the delegation on the trip to the Netherlands to chronicle the events, observations, and inspirations gained by the tour. The BIkes Belong newsfeed will feature his blog posts this week.
As you marvel at the parade of Dutch bicyclists of all ages whizzing past you on the cycle paths of Utrecht, one question arises: Why is biking a way of life in the Netherlands and only a tiny portion of the transportation picture in United States?
A group of California transportation leaders found the answer yesterday at a suburban school. Principal Peter Kooy of the DeSpits primary school told a delegation of visiting elected officials and planners from the Bay Area public that 95 percent of older students—kids in the 10-12 age range— at the DeSpits primary school bike to school at least some of the time.
Compare that to the 15 percent who either walk or bike to school in the United States, down from 50 percent in 1970.
This not only helps explain the mounting childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S., but also why so few Americans ride a bike to work or to do errands—a mere one percent of trips compared to 12 percent in Germany, 20 percent in Denmark, and 27 percent in the Netherlands.
“I came to the Netherlands to have my mind blown about biking,” declared Damon Connolly, vice-mayor of San Rafael, California. “And that sure happened when I heard that 95 percent of kids bike to school.”
This impressive commitment to biking is not uniquely imprinted in the Dutch DNA. It is the result of a conscious push to promote biking that has resulted in the doubling of bicycle use since the oil crisis of the1970s.
And a large part of that success can be attributed to what happens in the schools. Kids learn how to bike safely as part of their education said Ronald Tamse, a city planner who led our tour group along the bike paths of Utrecht to the DeSpits school.
A city program sends special teachers into the schools to conduct bike classes, and students go to Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete with roads, sidewalks, and busy intersections where students hone their pedestrian, biking, and driving skills (in non-motorized toy cars). At age 11, most kids are tested on their two wheel skills on an extensive tour of the town.
“To make safer roads, we focus on the children,” Tamse explained. “Because it not only helps them bike and walk more safely, but it helps them to become safer drivers who will look out for pedestrians and bicyclists in the future.”
These kinds of programs could make a huge difference in the United States, where 60 percent of people report in surveys they would like to bike regularly if they felt safer—but only eight percent actually do bike regularly.