Someone on the Milwaukee Bikes to Work Yahoo Group recently asked at what age do parents allow their kids to bike to school. The percentage of U.S. students who walk and/or bicycle to school has dropped from about 50 percent in 1969 to only 15 percent today. That has as much to do with school siting as it does with safety concerns, since back in 1969, the majority of kids lived within a mile of their public school. But I think the original question is really asking at about safety.
In 1969, I was 7 years old and I lived on 86th and Adler. My school was at 84th and O’Conner, a very short walk. But in between my house and the school were four major freeway ramps and a major arterial road. Still, my parents sent me on my way every morning without fear and I walked to school from 1st grade on. I was not walking alone though, because every other kid in my neighborhood went to the same school and they all walked there too.
You can see this in the map below. All the kids in my area took a shortcut on a dirt path through those bushes along the freeway fence since Adler curved in the opposite direction of our school.
I remember one of the first times I walked home, I accidentally turned west too soon and walked along the wrong side of the fence next to the freeway. I clearly remember staring at my street though the fence and crying because I was scared. I eventually figured out what I did wrong and walked around the fence to take that shortcut though the bushes that I had learned from the other kids in my neighborhood. I never made that mistake again, and I really don’t remember any other problems from 1st through 5th grade when I went to that school and lived on 86th St.
Nobody ever road a bike to school that I remember, but all my friends had bikes and we rode them all over our neighborhood, to the hobby shop in West Allis and on the dirt trails behind Ryerson Steel’s warehouse behind my house. We would hop on our stingrays and tell our parents we would be home for lunch or dinner. They never asked where we were going, and we never really knew. We just headed off and made it up as we pedaled along.
Traffic safety seems more of concern these days. Parents are quick to mention fears about kids on bikes mixing with so many cars out there. But in my situation, to get most anywhere we wanted to go, my pals and I had to ride on a busy arterial next to four freeway ramps. I don’t remember any problems. We rode on sidewalks as well as in the street, depending on where we were going. I don’t remember any lessons in traffic safety, or even a bike rodeo at school.
In those respects, most kids today are much better educated on how to ride in traffic and are probably statistically safer than we were in 1969. Parents seem to have greater fears of traffic so they teach their kids about it, which is a good thing. And there are many more bike education programs like Safe Routes to School and local bike rodeos today than there were back the.
As far as crash statistics go, the number of bicycle crashes, and fatal bike crashes had declined. In 1975 there were 1003 fatal car/bike crashes. In 2008, according to NHTSA’s “Traffic Safety Facts for Bicyclists and Other Cyclists, there were only 716 cyclists killed. Overall crash numbers are down even more since then as well.
If it is statistically safer to ride a bike and kids are better educated about traffic safety, why don’t more kids bike and walk to school today? First, most kids don’t live so close to their school anymore. Integration, “magnate” schools that draw kids citywide, other issues today have most kids live quite far from their school, at least in Milwaukee. This is not as true in the inner ring suburbs like Shorewood, Wauwatosa, Whitefish Bay, etc. And in those communities, many more kids walk and bike to school. In the outer ring suburbs, schools tend to larger and are located much further away, so there is much more busing and parents driving kids to school.
But other than distance to school, I think the same “it’s dangerous to bike or walk out there” mantra that permeates our society is to blame. Depsite the fact that the number one risk of death for school age kids is riding in an automobile, we have this cultural belief that it is dangerous to ride a bike or walk.
The same arguments I made in my previous posts about bicycle safety all apply to kids today too. And the culture of inactivity is also a problem for kids. Today, more than 33 percent of children and adolescents in the U.S.—approximately 25 million—are overweight or obese. When physical educations programs are almost non-existent in our schools today, a bicycle trip or a walk to and from school increase opportunities for children to be physically active.
We all love our kids and want then to be healthy, happy and avoid risk. To that end, I will discuss bicycle safety and kids in another post later this week. In the mean time, let me know if you walked or biked to school and if you have kids, if they can do the same today.