All around the country, and especially in suburban areas, safety conscious parents often keep their kids indoors, off what many fear to be dangerous streets. As a result, many fewer children are walking and cycling, with grave consequences for the nation’s health. The Active Transportation Alliance has long tried to offset this trend in a small way, by offering a few bicycle safety education programs for kids in partnership with towns like Oak Park and Wilmette.
However, Active Trans’ capacity to deliver bike safety classes to kids all across the region was long hamstrung by scarce resources. You can’t teach art to kids without crayons or paint, and likewise it’s tough to teach bike safety without bikes — or without qualified bike safety instructors. The new “Bikes on Wheels” program will bring these tools to many more kids throughout Chicagoland.
The program builds off Active Trans’ current efforts in Oak Park, where a pilot project with local nonprofit Greenline Wheels and with school physical education programs teaches kids traffic safety. Jason Jenkins, education coordinator at Active Trans, says that the program begins with a “bike rodeo,” with chalk and cones set up in the schoolyard to teach kids about riding in a straight line, stopping, signalling and making turns, checking over their shoulders for oncoming traffic, and where to expect pedestrians and cars. Some schools offer additional sessions, when kids can work their way up to a supervised, on-street ride to a nearby park.
The local partners in Oak Park had a fleet of kids’ bikes and a small trailer, which provided the inspiration for Bikes on Wheels. Thanks to a grant from Specialized Bikes, obtained with the help of Kozy’s Cyclery, Active Trans now has a truck trailer stocked with a full fleet of 30 kids’ bikes, two adult bikes, helmets, and other materials necessary to teach one P.E. class at a time about safe riding. The bikes are as basic as they get, with one speed and coaster brakes, in order to minimize ongoing maintenance expenses.
Active Trans will set up a tour schedule for the Bikes on Wheels trailer, to “allow towns to try out on-bike education in schools without the upfront costs,” Jenkins says. “Ideally, we want to use it as an incubator fleet. We’ll allow a community to borrow it free of charge, and we would provide training to their instructional staff: PE teachers, park district staff, local bike advocates, and volunteers from PTOs.” The bikes would cycle to a new town each year — but “once they get their feet wet,” Jenkins is confident that towns will then do as Oak Park has done and purchase their own bicycle fleet for future years of instruction.
Jenkins says that having on-bike education within schools has made a big difference in communities so far. “When the parents get to see that the kids are able to retain the information about safe cycling,” he says, “that eases parent concerns about allowing kids to bike for transportation, or to bike to school. [Parents] become more comfortable about letting the kids have that freedom.” In Wilmette, where Active Trans has been working for several years, “We see full bike racks at those schools. We think a big factor is that we’re doing on-bike education in those schools, so it’s become part of the culture now.”
Right now, Jenkins is working with four candidate communities to set up programs over the next two years. All are Cook County municipalities that Active Trans has previously collaborated with, and “all the schools have been very excited by it” so far. With future support, and contacts in new places, they hope to be able to bring Bikes on Wheels to schools across all of Northeastern Illinois.