Hundreds Expected to Take Part in Bike to School Day Thursday

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Commuter convoys of students, parents, teachers, administrators and bicycle educators are expected to take part in tomorrow's first annual Bike to School Day in San Francisco, an effort to educate communities about the dangers of driving to school, and the healthy benefits of bicycling.

"It's something I felt the city was ready for," said Benjamin Caldwell, the head of the Presidio YMCA's bicycle education program, who is organizing the event with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the SF Department of Public Health, the MTA, the Mayor's office and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

Some 22 schools are expected to take part, drawing what organizers originally hoped would be up to 500 students. A number of energizer stations will be set up around the city -- similar to Bike to Work Day -- so students can re-charge with giveaways and healthy snacks.

According to figures from the event's website, at least 66 percent of San Francisco students do not meet the recommended daily levels of activity:

One-quarter of all students is overweight, and nearly 1 in 10 is obese. Less than 0.1 percent of SF school children regularly bicycle to school, yet many schools have at least  50 percent or more students living within half a mile of school; and too many students are needlessly driven to school, making the streets around many schools physically unsafe and congested, and significantly worsening air pollution.

Despite those numbers, Caldwell said it's been an uphill battle getting some schools to support bicycling.

"We had come up against some issues, like principals who are sort of against kids biking to school in any way, shape or form, and I felt like the best way to reach a lot more kids, and also get a lot more support for bicycling to school, was to really do it on a citywide level."

Caldwell said some principals mistakenly believed a school is liable if a child is injured on his or her bike while cycling to school. In actuality, the bigger threat is from cars around schools, which create unsafe conditions for everyone.

"It's a regressive cycle. The more parents and people drive to school the more unsafe areas around schools become because there's more people dropping off and picking up and then it gets more unsafe, and fewer students bike or walk to school and more are driven. We've been in a very bad pattern, and only now are we trying to turn that pattern around."

kids_bicycling.jpgStudents at Marshall Elementary School taking part in the YMCA's bicycle education program.
Caldwell, whose bicycle education program serves about 500 students a year, says many areas are unsafe for kids to bike but he points out that since half of all students in San Francisco live within a half a mile of their school, there's really no reason why they shouldn't be cycling. “Those kids can and should be riding to school and there are safe routes.”

Some attitudes might be changing now that the city is preparing to launch its Safe Routes to Schools program, an effort funded with a $500,000 grant from the federal DOT that will focus on bicycle and pedestrian education and safer streets. One result is the MTA will work with the SFUSD to design the city's first bike to school map.

"Safe Routes to Schools is one of the best, proven ways to improve conditions for walking and biking," said Leah Shahum, the executive director of the SFBC. "We know that fewer and fewer kids are walking and biking to school today and that this is having a direct, negative effect on kids’ long-term health and habits. Fortunately, we also know that we can turn this alarming trend around.”

The SFBC points out that schools in Marin County showed an 80 percent increase in bicycle ridership among students two years after their Safe Routes to Schools program was launched there.

The SFBC also noted:

In the late 1960s, 90 percent of children who lived within a mile of their school walked or biked. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 31 percent of kids do so. Studies show that 78 percent of school age children are not getting enough exercise and that this generation will likely be the first to have a lowered life expectancy than their parents.

Caldwell said although the numbers of kids bicycling to school in the city is "pathetically low," many parents are already doing it on a daily basis with their kids, including some whose kids are in kindergarten. 

“Biking to school is a regular part of our week”, said Jonn Herschend, who bikes with his two children, ages 9 and 6 years old, for about 1.3 miles to Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School, one of the schools participating in Bike to School Day. “We want to instill healthy and sustainable habits and are glad to know that the School District is helping do the same.”