Bike Donation Program to Benefit East Palo Alto Elementary Students

Some East Palo Alto youngsters are escorted by a police officer as part of the FIT zone program, which encourages health and fitness activity in neighborhoods with high levels of crime and violence. Photo: EPAPD

Brent Butler was leading a bicycle rodeo in East Palo Alto for the city’s first Streets Alive event last year when he realized just how many children were there without bikes.

“What I decided to do is continue to teach the rules of the road even if we don’t have bicycles,” said Butler, the city’s planning manager and bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. “We’re going to run the course and I’m going to demonstrate what you need to do with your arms. That was successful. The kids loved it.”

The 2011 event, timed with World Health Day and Cinco De Mayo, drew 1,000 kids from neighborhoods all over East Palo Alto. While there’s no shortage of children eager to ride, there is a lack of access to bicycles. Not a single bike shop exists in East Palo Alto, where 79 percent of families are low income.

“That’s a big obstacle because, you know, when you go to Palo Alto, the bike shops are expensive. For a low-income community, the prices can be prohibitive,” said Butler.

To help break some of the barriers to bicycle ownership in a youthful city where the average age is 28, the city has partnered with the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.  The first step is a bicycle donation program called the East Palo Alto Low Income Mobility Initiative that will benefit elementary school children who complete a bicycle education class.

“We really need to get the youth educated,” said Butler. “A lot of the studies indicate that if you bicycle in your youth, it’s often something that will stay with you.”

Low-income families in East Palo Alto face a higher frequency of health and crime problems than any other city in San Mateo County. The Ravenswood Family Health Center estimates more than 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese by the age of 5.

“One of the focuses of our effort is to indicate how important (bicycling) is for your health. Rewarding households that have zero cars is one of my dream projects,” said Butler, who gets around the city by bicycle. “I’m trying to encourage others to do what I do.”

The city’s official bike mode share is 1.8 percent — one of the highest among cities in San Mateo County. After the city builds a bike and pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 reconnecting the underserved west side, Butler predicts East Palo Alto’s biking rate will dramatically increase. The city is also planning to install more bike lanes and sharrows with the goal of increasing bicycling by .25 percent each year, or 1.25 percent over the next 5 years.

For the past year, SVBC has sent instructors into nine schools in the Ravenswood City School District, teaching 2nd graders pedestrian safety skills, and 4th graders bicycle safety skills.

“We do whatever we can to get them on a bike, being comfortable, and learning safe behavior,” said Colin Heyne, the SVBC’s deputy director. “Even the walking stuff is fun, and kids always like to get out and go play on the playground.”

According to Butler, an estimated 30 percent of kids in East Palo Alto live within a bikeable or walkable distance from school. He said planning staff has been working to get feedback from East Palo Alto’s elderly and youth population on what they see as the obstacles to biking and walking.

“The Low Income Mobility Initiative seeks to reduce the public health disparity resulting in higher mortality and morbidity for East Palo Alto residents when compared to the surrounding cities of Mountain View, Palo Alto and Menlo Park,” Butler wrote in a letter seeking donations from large Silicon Valley companies.

Heyne said the SVBC has been working with a task force on the initiative that includes members of the East Palo Alto Police Department, along with teachers and parents from the school district. Eventually, once more kids are riding bikes, SVBC plans to approach merchants to encourage them to offer prizes, and launch competitive programs.

For now, the mobility initiative’s goal is to get 225 bicycles donated in the first round. “We will identify students that are enthusiastic about riding a bike, have the family support to do so and are in need of a bike and not likely to get one on their own,” said Heyne.

To make a donation to the program, contact Corinne Winter, SVBC executive director, at 408-287-7259, extension 225.

This story is part of Streetsblog San Francisco’s Peninsula coverage. Got a story tip or idea? Contact bryan@sf.streetsblog.org.