Youth Bike Education: A National “Movement” Movement

Youth bike education programs across the country are addressing serious social issues from urban poverty to childhood obesity. In Kansas City, bike education is paving the way for a new generation of engaged, urban activists and community leaders.

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Helmets lay waiting for students before bike class at James Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri.

Orange practice cones pockmark the blacktop at James Elementary School in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast district. Gusts of wind send flurries of leaves and petals past a group of students sitting attentively around an instructor. A small fleet of matching bikes wait in a neat formation by the building.

“Can anyone tell me”, he asks, “one of the three rules of the road?” Half a dozen kids raise their hand. One girl calls out, “Ride right!”

“That’s absolutely correct”, replies the instructor, “We always ride on the right side of the road!”.

The program is called Bicycle Lesson and Safety Training, or “BLAST” for short. Initiated in Kansas City 2011 by local bike and pedestrian advocacy group, BikeWalkKC, BLAST has grown into one of the premier youth bike education programs in the country. Moreover, it seems the program came at a critical time for kids in Kansas City and around the country.

For many of us, one fateful day represents one of the most liberating and empowering moments of the human experience: the day you learn to ride a bike. Rubber gliding across pavement, wind in your face, bike riding is every kid’s first opportunity to take mobility into their own hands. From school, to parks, to houses around the neighborhood, a bike is truly a vessel of freedom for youth and adults alike.

However, it’s a right-of-passage that fewer and fewer kids today are able to experience. According to statistics, youth bicycle riding is on the decline in the US. Between 2000 and 2010, youth bike riding rates dropped roughly 6%. Today, just 20%, or 1 in 5, of American youth ride their bikes at least six times per year. For an activity once assumed to be a fundamental pastime, it appears the “American Bicycle Dream” is in danger.

What affect is this trend having on today’s youth? It is no coincidence that this period of youth biking declination parallels similar increases in childhood obesity and inactivity. A study from CDC found that between 1999 and 2010, childhood obesity rates climbed 2.5% on top of what were already record highs. Today, over 17% of children and adolescents in America are obese with even far more overweight.

In addition to unhealthy diet, this growing endemic has been largely caused by a proliferation of sedentary lifestyles. According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, just one-third of children are physically active on a daily basis. Instead, much of that time is being devoted to stationary activities fueled largely by electronic devices. America’s youth spends up to 7.5 hours per day in front of a screen.

Moreover, institutionalized physical activity has found itself on the chopping block across the country. As school priorities shift to increasing standardized test scores (despite a large body of research to the contrary), more and more districts are reducing or eliminating outright, recess and P.E. courses. In fact, only six states in the country require physical education in every grade K-12 (Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, and Vermont).

This is not to say that these problems are caused solely by decreases in youth bike riding rates. Rather, both are part of the same trend. That is, health and physical activity for children is dropping on the priority list for parents and school districts in favor of intellectual activities (still important) and convenience. Or perhaps more likely, this is an issue whose absence was once taken for granted. But now that we have the problem, it’s time for a solution. For a growing number of groups around the country, that solution is bikes.

So why aren’t kids strapping on their helmets and hitting the pavement? We look to a number of explanations.  Schools are being built further away from neighborhood centers, cycling to many is perceived as “inconvenient”, and many districts simply do not encourage biking or walking to school to the extent to which they once did. However, the critical concern for most parents is safety.

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Students at Whittier Elementary practice on a “mock road” set up with orange cones and tennis balls. The course is one part of BikeWalkKC’s BLAST program.

BikeWalkKC chose to tackle this problem head on with Kansas City’s youth. If less kids are riding bikes because of safety concerns, what could we do right now to make that barrier go away?

The BLAST program is actually just one part of a comprehensive approach to bike safety education and advocacy BikeWalkKC calls “Local Spokes”. BLAST, along with Earn-A-Bike, where kids are given a free bike after successful completion of a mechanical-oriented course, and Youth Ambassadors, where kids connect to the built environment through an active transportation advocacy project, comprises one of the premier youth bike programs in the country.

Maggie Priesmeyer, the Education Programs Manager at BikeWalkKC, explains why a comprehensive approach is vital.

“The overall goal of BikeWalkKC’s Local Spokes program is to teach safe bicycling as an important life skill and encourage daily physical activity through active transportation. The three programmatic components of Local Spokes each have a particular focus and ideally feed into each other. BLAST teaches basic bicycle safety and handling skills through a 4 hour, on-bike training course. Earn-a-Bike discusses basic bicycle mechanics and aims to solve the barrier of access to bikes – all participants who complete the program receive a bicycle and helmet. Youth Ambassadors takes a broader view of active transportation, engaging older students around making the built environment more inviting and accessible for walking and biking.”

Today, at James Elementary, kids practice using hand signals and obeying traffic signs on a course.

“Remember to always scan for traffic at a stop sign,” reminds the instructor. The kids look left, right, and then left again before proceeding through the course.

Priesmeyer explains, “Learning rules of the road and how to navigate in traffic is a basic life skill. The earlier you teach these concepts, the more time there is to practice safe behaviors while walking, riding a bike and eventually driving. Teaching these skills and building an understanding for active transportation at a young age will ultimately create safer, more aware drivers.”

Youth bike education, though, is about even more than safety, it’s about a bigger picture. Cities across the country, from Washington D.C. to Boulder, Colorado to Seattle, Washington, are focusing on initiating and expanding similar youth bike education programs for kids (and even adults). That’s because the benefits of youth bike education don’t stop with students themselves. It’s about creating movement – a “movement” movement.

Youth Bike Education Infographic
Infographic by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson

Not only do data show that kids who bike or walk to school perform better academically, it is safe to assume that these kids have a clear path toward being involved in their communities. The goal is that this next generation of urban activists will be larger and more involved than any before. By riding bikes throughout and interacting with their neighborhoods structurally and socially, kids are empowered to have a voice in their communities both now and down the road. BikeWalkKC is confident this will result in sustaining and accelerating Kansas City’s recent growth of people and transit-oriented, vibrant communities.

“It’s all about BikeWalkKC’s mission to redefine our streets as places for people to build a culture of active living,” says Priesmeyer.

It’s no coincidence that local and state governments are beginning to invest more heavily in youth bike education. With countless studies showing the environmental and economic benefits of cycling vs traditional forms of transportation such as automobiles, public financial support should come as no surprise.

Not only do bikes represent a 100% clean energy form of transit, they require just an estimated one-sixth the infrastructure cost to transport and park them. A community with a more active bike-transit presence is also often associated with higher quality of life for residents.

In Kansas City, it’s also about self-empowerment for the kids. James Elementary lies within one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city. With many first-generation immigrant families, it is not surprising the neighborhood is also one of the city’s poorest. At James, as well as dozens of other schools throughout Kansas City’s economically-depressed neighborhoods, biking represents freedom and independence for kids.

Not only does bicycling allow kids to have a voice in their community, it creates a culture of opportunity. A young person who is confident on the road with a bike has an open world in front of them. That freedom may very well translate into economic opportunity as well as personal empowerment. It’s the kind of message that community leaders hope one day may result in a radical positive change for the outlook of kids living in or around areas of concentrated poverty in the city.

Youth bike education does not come without challenges. The very nature of the problem of decreasing youth ridership allows us to infer that parents are less involved than they once were. This means by the fourth grade (when Kansas City kids start the BLAST program), many students may not even know how to ride in the first place. Especially in poorer neighborhoods where the head(s) of household work most of the day, kids simply never learn to ride. Furthermore, the very convenience of automobile transportation lowers the priority for teaching a child safe bike riding skills.

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BLAST instructor, Laura Steele, explains to youth bike riders how to safely navigate a 4-way intersection

Sometimes as much as one-third of new BLAST classes contain kids that have never ridden a bike. It became quickly apparent that teaching these kids would be an important second goal of the program. To date, BikeWalkKC has taught hundreds of kids (and a few adults) how to ride a bike for the first time. Many of these students are even able to enter the more advanced traffic safety courses by the end of the program.

Despite the overwhelming progress made by the organization on this front, a fundamental challenge may yet remain. That is, even if a kid does learn to ride through BLAST, if they don’t have the means to practice at home, their work in the program may quickly come undone.

Luckily, BikeWalkKC has a solution to this as well. Through their Earn-A-Bike program, students are able to learn to fix, maintain, and to a degree disassemble and reassemble a bike. At the end of the 10-week program, every kid gets a bike of their very own. And though is program highly extensive (nearly 400 bikes given away), it is contingent on donations from the community, which can fluctuate in undependable ways.

Though youth bike education is changing the course for many of America’s youth, it is still a work in progress. The aims of programs across the country vary. In D.C. public schools, the goal is to teach every second-grader in the district how to ride a bike. In Portland, Oregon, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance teaches students, over ten weeks, specific bike skills that enable them to ride to school safely.

Youth bike education is anything but an exact science, but the beauty may be in its flexibility. With diverse communities comes creative, unique approaches that grant kids the skills they need to be successful where they live. As programs such as BLAST continue to grow across the country, don’t be surprised if soon it’s the youth who lead the ride toward improving the well-being of our communities.

If you would like to support BikeWalkKC and their work in bike and pedestrian advocacy and education, please click here.

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