Here at BFOC we noticed that our local elementary schools had little to no children bicycling to campus, and after doing some research learned that this is an alarming trend occuring throughout the nation. According to the FHA, 50% of children bicycled to school in 1969. Today, it’s under 15%. What’s incredible is that I clearly remember bicycling most days to school in the mid-1980’s along with many of my friends. There were easily a half dozen bike racks lining the back of our school and most of us didn’t even think to lock up. Once we moved to North Oak Cliff, I began noticing that few if any children rode to school at all. At our kid’s school, it was rare to ever see a child on a bike…in fact, the line to drop kids off by car would stretch a half mile through the neighborhood (which is ironic given that 90% of the children live within a half mile radius of the school). After reading up on Safe Routes to School programs, and other initiatives to promote getting kids to walk and bike more, BFOC decided to try and put together a “Bike to School” week initiative to see if we could turn things around. We set to work creating punch cards for the kids, making “I BIKE Rosemont” t-shirts, and partnering with the school’s art teachers to have children make bike posters. Our goal was ambitious: to have 100 kids bicycle to school by the last day. On the first day we watched 21 kids bicycle in…our fear was that it might hold steady throughout the week. On the second, we were shocked to see the number double at 54. On the third day we hit 82 and realized we might make our goal earlier than anticipated. By Thursday 100 children were bicycling to school. It was an amazing site to behold.
Friday afternoon, we set off for our “Kiddical Mass” ride to Eno’s for Root Beer floats. Nearly 75 kids joined us on the one mile ride to the Bishop Arts, laughing and smiling the entire way. The most exciting part was hearing the kids say that they wanted to ride to school everyday now. The money we raised from t-shirt sales is going to install a bike rack (none exists at the upper campus).
When asking parents why they hadn’t let their kids ride to school, the fear cited most often was fear of being hit by a car. After reviewing the infrastructure around the school, we noted that road fronting the upper campus school (grades 3-5) had been converted to a one-way/three lane during school zone hours, which gives higher priority to cars and dramatically decreases the perception of safety for those considering walking or bicycling. It also reduces safety when crossing the street at intersections. The lower campus (grades K – 2) had three dedicated lanes built to front the school, and a two lane slip lane which allowed entrance into the campus. All total, 5 lanes of auto traffic came in and out of this campus, making the area feel all but hostile to kids even considering getting on a bike. To make matters worse, while volunteering to lead kids in for the ride, we counted dozens of people texting while driving into the school.
Sadly, the reality we face now is that when we create large road systems, people feel more comfortable driving faster and taking their eyes off the road. I spoke with residents of my old neighborhood to find out about kids bicycling to my school and they noted the same dramatic drop in numbers. A quick glance at Google StreetView showed that the once winding two-lane road that fronted my school was now straightened and converted to four lanes with two additional turn lanes in front of the school.
So what did we do by making things faster and more convenient for cars? Parents became afraid to allow their kids to walk and bike and chose not to which created a negative feedback loop resulting in everyone deciding to simply give up and drive. In turn, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the last 30 years and the actual safety of the area decreased. A small neighborhood street became a thoroughfare. So how do we change things? Actually, the fact that we overbuilt our road systems gives us an opportunity to introduce a “complete street” option that returns parity to multiple modes of transit and doesn’t give priority to any single mode. First we have to define our goals, and with a school present it becomes simple: increase safety, increase walkability/bikability. Next we have to find out what is unsafe. Parents have already told us this: too many cars. As volunteers we noted that drivers are easily distracted in the area as well (texting, calling, radio, etc.). Below is our Good, Better, Best solution that remedies the problems, with the latter actually enticing people to walk/bike more.
Good: In this example, the road has been thinned by adding a bike lane. The thinning of a street naturally calms the road and makes drivers slow down. This option is inexpensive to implement (paint only), lowers the long term maintenance costs of the street (every additional lane increases costs for resurfacing, striping, etc), and allows for safer crossing by pedestrians.
Better: This example shows a bike lane with a physical barrier seperating it from the street. These are beginning to be found on the East and West coasts and some areas in the South. The cost of implementation is slightly higher (though it can be offset by simply moving the parking lane to the left of the bike lane, creating a natural barrier), but the upside is that studies show dramatic increases in bicycling when this option is applied. The physical seperation of cars increases the perception of safety, which is the argument heard most when people say they’d like to bicycle but do not.
Best: This model is of a street which has given priority to bicycling and walking. A single drive lane exists, but the area feels uncomfortable to drivers which is something that should be standard for all roads fronting schools. This example uses an expensive brick option, though an inexpensive version is possible by using StreetPrint, a material being utilized in all of NYC’s new pedestrian plazas. The road has been engineered in such a way that cars will drive slow, and pedestrians have only a single car-lane to cross. Maintenance costs from potholes, bumps, and paint removal (all byproducts of auto traffic) are at their lowest as road crews have far less real estate to have to manage. This street invites bicycling and walking at high levels…in fact, you’d be inconvenienced to attempt another mode.
A final note on implementing a “complete street” option is that all of the three examples listed make for a much more beautiful neighborhood street, especially when compared to what we currently face. The national Safe Routes to School organization has been very successful in working with cities to help adopt infrastructure changes, alongside education and awareness programs. Also, the city of Dallas is rapidly changing its policies in regards to street development with efforts currently underway to complete a revision of the Dallas Bike Plan which coincides with recent announcements of a Complete Street policy program.