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Bicycle Infrastructure

First Bike to School Day in San Francisco a Success

kid_school.jpgA very happy bike-riding student at Monroe Elementary School in the Excelsior. Flickr photo: Marc Caswell

All morning I've been asking myself (and some others) why kids riding bicycles to school is a pressworthy event. Don't kids always ride bikes to school or have we become so car-dependent that even this sancrosanct part of being young and carefree is a thing of the past?  Unfortunately, the latter is the case, as no school in San Francisco sees even 5 percent of walking and bicycling trips to school.

Today's inaugural Bike to School Day is the start of a shift for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to promote cycling as a healthy and environmentally sound way to get to school.

"The school district has recently started promoting biking to school as a way to commute efficiently, however they haven't done an actual event to promote biking to school before this," said SFBC Program Manager Marc Caswell.  "Today is the day we're actually going to reward students that want to ride to school."

Nik Kaestner, Director of Sustainability for the SFUSD, said the district is now focusing on expanding bicycling through its Safe Routes to Schools educational efforts.

"The more that this becomes commonplace, the more we change culture, the more people will come around," he said. "I think that’s the goal around the district. If you're just throwing facts at them, I don't think that makes a difference. I think it needs to be cool."

Kaestner relayed an anecdote from this morning at Roosevelt Middle School, where a kid came up to him after seeing the bagels and juice that kids who cycled enjoyed and said he needed to ride next year. "It's nice to see the kids that are biking are being rewarded for doing it and other kids are taking notice."

When asked why the walking and bicycling numbers are so low in San Francisco, Kaestner suggested that many parents fear for their child's safety on the street.  "There's a general fear of what might happen to their kid if they walk or bike. They think putting them in steel boxes is safer."

Ironically, one of the biggest dangers to kids near schools is parents in cars. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, parents dropping off their children in cars are responsible for half the car-kid injuries reported around schools.

Organizers of Bike to School Day hoped to draw at least 500 students at the 22 schools that participated and if the action at Monroe Elementary School in the Excelsior was any indication, they will reach their target.  At final count, there were over sixty kid's bicycles and scooters, which represents more than 10 percent of the students at Monroe.

Birgit.jpgMonroe parent Birgit Cory and her two sons. Photo: Matthew Roth

Hugh Treanor, a kindergartner and one of only a handful of students who rides routinely, boasted, "I ride always every day. I bike one whole mile."  His friend Joad Stien, also in kindergarten, said that he rides as much as possible because his bicycle is so cool. "I don't get tired because I have automatic gears.  Whenever I go uphill, they turn on, when it's on a downhill, they turn off."

For kindergartner Yoloxy Escobar, the experience was new, though her mother, Sara Torres, said she would continue to ride. "She loves it," said Torres. "This was a success today."

Mario Malagon, a special education teacher at Monroe, saidthey rarely get more than four or five students riding to school regularly and asserted that events like today were important to change that low number. "I'm very happy and satisfied.  We're going to try to get the kids
excited about the bicycle movement, because it is extremely important.

Pointing to the railing where the bicycles were leaning as part of bicycle valet at Monroe for the day, Malagon highlighted one of many obstacles for increasing riding: lack of a safe place to lock the bicycles. "Right now one of the parents wants to get this access here for the students to park their bikes in the future," he said.

Leah Shahum of the SFBC said that only eight schools had added bicycle racks this year and the SFBC had to raise the funds from a foundation on the East Coast to pay for them. Monroe was not one of the schools to get racks and is not on the list for new racks. In reference to the SFUSD, Shahum said, "They're being skiddish about finding funds while the injunction is in place."

She said the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) had paid for bike
racks elsewhere and suggested that the agency could be approached by the SFUSD.

When asked if the SFUSD would consider reaching out to BAAQMD, Kaestner said, "We're working with the BAAQMD in other ways, so that makes sense. We'll consider everything."

Another concern often cited by school principals as a rationale for not adding bicycle racks is fear of lawsuits.  Shahum said that liability issues are a red herring, that schools are no more liable if a child gets hurt on the way to school riding a bicycle than they are riding in a car.

Kaestner agreed with that logic and said, "We just passed a board resolution to dispel those issues and put the board's weight behind increasing bicycling."

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