State of the spokes

Kids still ride, but less than they used to. Cycling faces competition from other sports - and from the car culture.

Maybe the most underutilized object in the typical American garage is the bicycle. Almost every youngster has one, but they're used less than in the past, a fact that concerns biking advocates.

"Imagine a generation of kids in which half didn't learn to ride a bike as children," says Bill Wilkinson, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of America. "I think we're getting close to that point."

The problem, Mr. Wilkinson believes, is that riding a bike has become an activity pursued like tennis. "It's something you get in the car and drive someplace to do, and that's not really a good prescription for a healthy future for bicycling," he observes.

According to statistics compiled by the National Sporting Goods Association, the number of young people ages 7 to 17 who ride bikes dropped from 20.8 million in 1990 to 17.8 million in 1998. The frequency of bike use has experienced a similar decline.

Part of the falloff can probably be attributed to the allure of television, video games, and computers - the couch-potato influences. Surely, some parents worry about "stranger danger" and intentionally keep children close to home and off the roads as well.

Mostly, however, America's automobile society has proved increasingly hostile to youngsters who are inclined to ride in cars to and from playgrounds, schools, shops, and friends' houses.

"We've designed kids out of our communities," says Jay Townley, executive director of the Bicycle Council. He points to poor urban planning - characterized by feeder streets that lead to busy, high-speed thoroughfares without shoulders and sidewalks - as major culprits in discouraging bicycle and foot traffic.

Despite this picture, biking advocates believe a turnaround has begun.

"We're starting to see signs of a real revolution taking place in this country," Wilkinson says. "Everywhere I go, people are focusing more and more on the quality of life and this whole idea of livable communities."

One promising sign is at the federal level, where transportation legislation now includes significant funding (nearly $1 billion over seven years) for bicycling and walking trails and infrastructure. The US Department of Transportation calls for incorporating bicycling and walking facilities into all transportation projects, unless exceptional circumstances exist.

This is good news to Chris Morfas of the California Bicycle Coalition, which develops and promotes bike-friendly initiatives.

"Real estate surveys show that people want to live in communities that have walking and biking trails," he says. "They want to live where kids can enjoy the freedom of movement that previous generations once did."

He calls this market trend one of the biggest hopes for cycling's revival. Another plus, he points out, is the partnership between the biking and public-health communities. The latter group, Mr. Morfas says, has emerged as a strong biking advocate.

"The public-health community sees youth-obesity rates and inactivity as a big problem," says Peter Moe, a senior planner with the Bicycle Federation.

One place where the bicycling-health alliance is working is California, which has allocated $40 million to creating better biking and walking routes to schools.

"In California, we've seen an avalanche of interest in the Safe Routes program," Morfas says. The state has received more than $100 million in applications for funding efforts to build sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails designed to encourage kids to walk and bike to school.

"We'd like parents and kids to walk out of the house in the morning and not automatically head for the car, but to think 'bike'," he explains.

In California, schools with geographically concentrated student bodies are considered the best Safe Routes candidates. "We target schools at which a majority of kids live less than two miles away," Morfas says. "Your average eighth-grader can ride two miles to school in less than 15 minutes."

Such proximity isn't always as conducive to bicycling as one might hope, though. Take the case of the Olken family of Brookline, Mass. Richard Olken is the executive director of the Bikes Belong Coalition, an industry-sponsored advocacy group. His son, George, is a very fit high school cross-country runner. Even so, Mr. Olken usually drives his son to school, though it's only a mile away.

Why? Because, like many teenagers, George cuts it close in the morning, plus he carries 15 to 20 pounds of books in his backpack. Nevertheless, the senior Olken has learned through Bikes Belong that cycling to school appeals to youngsters.

In a transportation questionnaire distributed at two schools with very few bike riders, many students said they'd pedal to school if various obstacles, such as parental permission and safety issues, were addressed.

This, they said, would avoid some of the tensions involved in having parents provide the transportation. Students thought cycling and walking would allow them to meet up with friends en route, and to arrive at school in a better, more relaxed frame of mind.

For parents uncomfortable with letting their children bike alone, a strength-in-numbers strategy, known as a "riding school bus," can be adopted. This approach, coordinated by parents and school officials, calls for students to join up along the way.

By doing so, they not only quiet fears about exceedingly rare abductions, they cut down on car traffic that often converges at schools.

"Because of all those idling SUVs," Olken says,"there's a spike in pollution around schools at dropoff and pickup times."

As much as cycling advocates would like young people to hop onto their bikes, they advise using caution.

"Children on bikes, especially at the elementary-school level, do not mix with traffic," says Tana Ball, founder and executive director of the Youth Educational Sports Foundation (YESports), a grassroots youth-cycling organization. Ms. Ball, a former junior national coach at the US Olympic Training Center, says that signalling and turning on a bike takes a number of basic skills.

Children who view bikes as toys generally aren't ready for the requirements of road riding, she says, but YESports promotes rider education for middle and high school students via afterschool programs and clubs.

"The kids want to ride, they really do want to learn," she says. "I'm blown away."

At Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles, a virtually bikeless landscape has been transformed into a cycling hotbed. When school reopens in September, there are plans to set up a student-run repair shop, since there's isn't one for miles around. The program, however, operates year-round, and works to introduce safe routing strategies.

"If you put a child on a bike and say, 'Go to the store,' they'll usually follow their parents' driving pattern," Ball says. "We show them safer routes to go to school, the local park, or the beach. It's a learning process."

In some ways, the program is sold to the students as pre-driver training.

Morfas, of the California Bicycle Coalition, says this approach really connects with eighth-graders.

"This is the best age," he says, "to show them that bicyclists are best off when they act more or less like the operators of cars, following most of the same rules. Bicycling gives them freedom of mobility as they wait to get their driver's licenses."

Teens with licenses, though, aren't considered beyond bicycling. Many, Ms. Ball finds, like the idea of saving $12,000 to $15,000 a year by choosing biking over car ownership.

YESports participants use new mountain and BMX bikes provided by Brunswick, a bikemaker with visions of taking the program nationwide. By keeping their grades up, students can earn free bikes impounded by the Los Angeles Police Department, another partner.

One requirement to normalize bike riding may be simply more-generic bikes.

"We're a generation behind Europe in the development of family-friendly bikes," Morfas says. "You go into a typical American bike store and what you see are racing bikes or high-tech mountain bikes, some with 24 gears. They're complicated and need more repairs than the comfort bikes sold in Europe, which may only have three speeds, and come equipped with lights, fenders, and an upright seating position. They send the message that this is a utility vehicle, a bike you can use to go to the store or school or to visit a friend."

Some US cities have earned reputations for their bike-friendliness, such as Davis, Calif.; Seattle; and Madison, Wis., but as more endeavor to accommodate cyclists, young people and commuters won't be the sole beneficiaries.

"If we built communities that enabled kids to cycle, and we taught them how to bicycle properly," Morfas says, "parents would find themselves with free time on their hands."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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