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Kids Biking to School: It Equals a Less Congested Commute To Work

September 2007

Kids Biking to School: It Equals a Less Congested Commute To Work

by Jennifer Karchmer

Jennifer Karchmer is a league cycling instructor (LCI) with the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. She’s a lecturer at Western Washington University and a freelance writer in Bellingham.

Part I

This is the first in a series of articles on biking in Whatcom County.

The hardest part of raising [children] is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.

— Sloan Wilson, author (1920-2003)

For the first time, 11-year-old Hannah Carpenter is riding her bike to school. It’s a big step for this Bellingham sixth grader who walked during her elementary days at Roosevelt School. Hannah has been riding a bike for years, but riding it to school is different than tooling around the neighborhood.

So Hannah and her mother, Kirsten Carpenter, worked out a safe, convenient bike route that uses the Bellingham trail system to get her to middle school from her home near Barkley Village. In some parts, Hannah says she’s more comfortable dismounting and walking her bike at crosswalks instead of trying to negotiate traffic during the busy morning commute, especially on Alabama Street.

“I think it’s good that a lot of kids are biking to school. It gets more people off the road in this community. Bellingham is a pretty bike-friendly place if you know where you’re going,” the sixth-grader said.

Hannah’s assessment of Bellingham is more than just kind words. In 2006, the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, recognized Bellingham as one of the top bike-friendly communities in the country. This award is given to cities that demonstrate a commitment to biking in five areas: education, encouragement, enforcement, engineering and evaluation.

Bellingham won a Silver Award for its strong education programs, encouragement in getting people on their bikes whether for work or school and the city’s overall engineering network of trails and bike lanes.

“It’s definitely something cool for our city to brag about,” said Ellen Barton, coordinator of the Whatcom Smart Trips EverybodyBIKE Program. “It says that the city already has a good amount of bike lanes, trails, signs, education and enforcement.” However, she added, the award doesn’t guarantee funding for more of these efforts. Bellingham would have to keep pace in each of these categories, or “the award will be rescinded or downgraded,” she added.

One way for residents to help keep Bellingham atop the bike-friendly list is to keep track of their Smart Trips. The innovative Whatcom Smart Trips program began in 2006. A Smart Trip is any trip you take by walking, biking, riding the bus, or sharing a ride if it would replace a drive-alone trip.

You’ve probably seen ads all over town and posters on WTA buses and pamphlets in your workplace about making Smart Trips. Basically you’re making a Smart Trip when you choose any of these ways to get around because it’s smart to save money, energy and taxes by not driving.

Smart Trips rewards everyone who participates. The dedicated Smart Trips Web site ( gives Smart Trip makers a simple trip diary to record their trips. Participants receive incentives, prizes and recognition at certain milestones. For instance, after only five trips, participants get a discount card, after 100 trips, a participant receives a gift certificate to Mallard’s Ice Cream. After logging 200 Smart Trips, participants earn a Smart Trips T-shirt.

Bellingham shares the bike-friendly community recognition with progressive cities like Davis, Calif., which topped the list with a Platinum Award. Davis apparently has more bikes than cars. In fact, Davis residents voted to get rid of public school busses several years ago, so many children in that city are walking or biking to school. The city’s logo has an image of a bike.

Other cities that topped the list for their bike friendly nature include Boulder, Colo.; Corvallis, Ore.; Madison, Wis.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and San Francisco, Calif.

Bellingham Overcomes Obstacles

But with unpredictable weather and a hilly network of streets, Bellingham offers some challenges to people biking, whether you’re an adult or kid.

Despite the obstacles, this year’s local Bike to Work & School Day held on May 18 recorded its greatest number of participants with 7,400 people biking and supporting the concept. Adults and kids meet at “Celebration Stations” set up all over town for breakfast. They receive biking stickers, prizes and information on bike clinics and other biking resources, and head to school or work or continue to another station for encouragement and conversation. Hundreds of volunteers have helped make the event happen for the past 10 years. The event is held on the third Friday of May and is part of a national organized day dedicated to biking and walking to work and school.

However, one alarming trend that tends to hamper these strides is the growing number of parents who drive their kids to school. A new study shows that a portion of the morning commute buildup is due to parents doing drive-alone trips carting their kids to school. Conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, the study showed that 21 to 27 percent of morning traffic is solely attributed to parents driving their children to school.

Car traffic is expensive for schools and taxpayers. Local property taxes paying for expanded roads are in direct competition with schools for funds that could be used to improve educational opportunities. Instead, the trend for years has been to cut school funding and expand asphalt.

Years ago, the scene was much different. Kids were walking to school or biking. In 1969, about 90 percent of kids who lived within a mile of school walked or rode bikes to get there. According to the most recent data from 2004, just 48 percent did that at least one day a week.

Of course, many factors contribute to these statistics. Schools are more spread out these days and, when kids live farther than five miles from the school, it’s more difficult to bike on a regular basis. Increased publicity about predators creates understandable fear among parents. But has this publicity overshadowed the danger posed by driving your kids in the car? The number one cause of injury and death to kids is when they are being driven in private cars.

Kirsten Carpenter, Hannah’s mother, joined Whatcom Smart Trips this year as the program coordinator. She said there are opportunities to find “that one trip” that is easy to change into a Smart Trip.

“Is there another friend to walk or bike with to school?” she asks. “Elementary school is a great time to give kids independence. Find that one trip that is changeable. Maybe it’s soccer practice. There’s always one trip kids can do on a bike.” A three-mile bike ride or a one-mile walk is easy for most people, even kids or out-of-practice adults.

Obesity — A National Epidemic

It’s no secret that getting kids on bikes is a good decision toward their physical health. And if you’ve been following the news, you’ve read that obesity in the U.S. has become a national issue. In fact, the CDC is calling it an epidemic. Obesity is quickly becoming the top cause of death in the U.S. The lack of physical activity in American’s daily lives is a major contributing factor.1

During the past 20 years, the number of obese Americans has risen dramatically. In 2000, an estimated 30 percent of U.S. adults, about 59 million people, were obese, with another 34 percent overweight.2

Because obesity has risen to an epidemic level, the CDC created a health objective to reduce the rate among adults to less than 15 percent by 2010. The CDC found that physically active transportation is the most effective way to get people active on a daily basis. Community design standards since the 1970s have hindered walking and bicycling, leading to the current sedentary epidemic.

For kids, the numbers are more shocking. Since the 1970s, the percentage of children and adolescents who are defined as “overweight” has more than doubled. More than nine million children older than six years old are considered “obese.”

On a national level, recognizing a connection between our environment and people’s health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences sponsored the first conference on obesity and the “built environment” in May 2004 in Washington, D.C., to research the relationship between the way Americans expend energy, or fail to be active, on a daily basis.3 Speakers at the conference argued that our current environment with elevators, subways and other technology hampers our ability to be active on a daily basis.

In 2003, the government created the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports to encourage adults and children to complete at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity five days a week. Participants learn how to track their progress and earn Presidential Active Lifestyle Awards for achieving and maintaining high activity levels and committing to being active for life.4 The “International Walk to School in the USA” program encourages students to walk and bike year-round.5

“America on the Move” promotes the use of pedometers and suggests people make a goal of taking 10,000 steps per day. People are urged to check their daily progress by tracking their steps. A whole “lifestyle approach” encourages people to use the stairs instead of taking the elevator, hand deliver messages at work instead of using email or the phone, park farther away in the lot when going to the store and walk to work.

While states and communities are conducting marketing campaigns by creating Web sites and local events focused on increased activity, the U.S. government has made an attempt to initiate legislation to address the obesity crisis.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) proposed the “Get Outdoors Act of 2004” to urge Americans to take advantage of activities at local parks and other recreational venues.6 Introduced on March 31, 2004, the proposal was designed to allocate a permanent source of annual funding for local governments, states and federal agencies to encourage physical activity, including biking.

In the U.S. Senate, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) introduced a similar bill, the “Americans Outdoors Act of 2004.”7 Their plan allocates $450 million a year for the planning and development of state and local parks and recreation facilities.

Unfortunately, both forms of the legislation have been at a standstill with no progress since 2004.

On the local level, Whatcom’s Smart Trips is taking action in innovative ways that leaders and other communities are starting to notice. By encouraging, promoting and rewarding people who bike or walk, the program is using proven marketing approaches to address multiple issues: health, congestion, community design and more.

EverybodyBIKE conducts the “Full Cycle” four-part bike class to teach everyone how to safely ride on the streets and share the road with motorists. EverybodyBIKE teachers are experienced, trained cyclists, who have been certified by the League of American Bicyclists through seminars and hands-on learning on bike safety, bike laws, rules and regulations, bike mechanics and basic repair.

The next everybodyBIKE Full Cycle class series will be held in the second week of October and it’s free with advance registration at If you don’t have time for all four parts, sign up for “First Gear,” part one of the “Full Cycle” series. “First Gear” is offered monthly at REI and has been offered at the Community Food Co-op and will be taught regularly on the Western Washington University campus during the school year.

You may already feel confident that you know how to bike but these classes can really give you the inside scoop that makes the difference. For example, do you know how to position your bike when turning at an intersection? Where should you be if there’s a bike lane but you’re turning left? Get answers to these and other key questions and get practice with techniques that will make you safer on trails, roads or when sharing the road with bikes as a driver.

For kids, the EverybodyBIKE team was busy this summer setting up bike rodeos at schools and public events. A rodeo is a structured course with orange cones and other props laid out in a grassy field or parking lot. Kids ride a bike through the course, learning a new skill at each station: hand signals, how to start and stop correctly, balancing and looking over your shoulder.

Certified instructors supervise the children on the course and provide prizes and giveaways. Before any child starts on the course, he or she is fitted with a standard bike helmet. The instructor reviews the ABC Quick Check of biking (check your Air, Brakes, Chain, Quick Releases and do a final Check). For individualized attention, parents can set up a free bike buddy session with an everybodyBIKE instructor.

Popular spots for EverybodyBIKE’s rodeo were at the “Get Movin’” series this summer at Civic Field in Bellingham in June and the Kids Festival at Bloedel-Donovan Park in August. There, the course was set up on a grassy area, which was more challenging for some to pedal, but provided a cushion for new riders working on balance.

Small Steps

Biking to school didn’t come naturally for Hannah, the middle school child. She and her sister, Sophia, 9, have learned good bike habits from their mother, who commutes by bike to work. This summer the girls practiced riding around town biking to their rock climbing lessons at the YMCA. “I think that it’s cool you’re getting in shape,” riding your bike, Hannah said.

They’ve worked out a communication system where the girls call on a cell phone to report their arrival to their destination, whether it’s the gym, the library — safely.

“Kids model their parents’ behavior. If you don’t bike with them, they will expect to be driven everywhere. They can’t drive and be responsible for their own transportation if you don’t give them a tool to be an independent traveler,” said Kirsten, who biked around the world from 1993-1995.

Children who bike to school seem to set themselves up for a healthier day and are more focused on learning.

Steve Wilson, who runs the Childlife Montessori School in Fairhaven with his wife Kathie, supports this claim as he witnessed the connection between biking and kids’ ability to learn, especially during the pre-school years. “At this stage, exposure to an environment that is sensory rich will bring out the natural curiosity of children,” he said.

Wilson, a certified EverybodyBIKE instructor, suggests that parents start with walking to school with the kids.

“Find neighbors who also walk, and go together. When the kids’ bike skills are solid, then it will be a smooth transition to change your commute to biking,” he added.

In addition to stronger learning habits is the attitude associated with getting yourself to school by your own power.

During the last three years as a school counselor at Fairhaven Middle School, Molly Westring detected pride at the bike rack. She commuted to work by bike every day and chatted with kids at the rack. “I noticed that the kids who biked to school were proud of their independence,” she said.

For parents wanting to give their children the autonomy of choosing biking as a mode of transportation, the best thing they can do is get comfortable on a bike and learn the rules of the road before sending their kids out on two wheels. Short bike rides are another way to start. “If it’s to a friend’s house three blocks away, let the kids ride. Kids are carted around way too much. Find the easiest trip to change and change that one trip,” Carpenter said.

Of more concern, she added, is children riding improperly, without helmets, zigzagging through traffic or riding the wrong way on sidewalks. “Kids who are riding dangerously and are unsupervised — that gives biking a bad rap,” Carpenter said.

Her daughter Hannah offers advice for other students who are just learning to bike. “I’d give them a packet that has road laws and things you need to know. Even as an experienced biker, you should look it over and make sure you do everything right. Take the trails if you’re not comfortable on big roads.”

And Hannah doesn’t mind the big hills Bellingham boasts, that’s if she’s going down. “My favorite thing is biking in summer. The days are warm and it’s not too rainy. You can bike down a hill, the wind in your face and blowing in your hair. It feels great.”

To learn more about biking in Whatcom County, to sign up for a bike buddy or take a free biking clinic, go to or contact Jennifer Karchmer at §

Next Month: In part II, Jennifer explores communication patterns that get bicyclists into trouble with motorists and pedestrians.


•American Obesity Association. 10 Jan. 2005,

•Brugman, Teresa and Susan Ferguson. “Physical Exercise and Improvements in Mental Health.” Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health, 40, 8 (2002): 24-32.

•Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services.

•Cervero, Robert and Michael Duncan. “Walking, Bicycling, and Urban Landscapes: Evidence From the San Francisco Bay Area.” American Journal of Public Health, 93, 9 (2003): 1478-83.

•Heinrichs, Jay. “The Number of Overweight American Children Has More Than Tripled in the Last 40 Years: Our Solution: Bring Back Outdoor Fun.” Backpacker, 31, 9 (2003): 34-5.

•Maeda, Julienne K. and Nathan M. Murata. “Collaborating With Classroom Teachers to Increase Daily Physical Activity: The GEAR Program.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 5, 5 (2004): 42-46.

•“Obesity and the Built Environment.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 112, 15 (2004): 900-1.

•National Institutes of Health Obesity Research Task Force.

•Schutz, Yves, Roland L. Weinsier and Gary R. Hunter. “Assessment of Free-Living Physical Activity in Humans: An Overview of Currently Available and Proposed New Measures.” Obesity Research, 9, 6 (2001): 368-79.

•Shephard, R.J. Letter. “A Need for More Experimental Studies of Physical Activity During Childhood.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 36, 5 (2004): 915-6.

•Surridge, Jason. “Wild at Heart: Tapping Into the Restorative Power of the Great Outdoors.” Mental Health Practice, 7, 7 (2004): 20-3.

1 All facts and figures regarding obesity and overweight rates are from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2 For more information, go to CDC National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2000.
3 From Obesity and the Built Environment: Improving Public Health Through Community Design, May 24-26, 2004:
4 President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports:
5 International Walk to School Program in the USA:
6 Get Outdoors Act, United States. Cong. House. H.R. 4100.
7 Americans Outdoors Act, United States. Senate. S. 2590.

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