What's Lost When Kids Don't Ride Bikes To School

Read David Darlington's piece, "Why Johnny Can't Ride"

As childhood obesity rates continue to rise, schools and parents look for ways to get kids off the couch. But the number of students who walk or ride their bikes to school has dropped from 48% in 1969 to just 13% in 2009. David Darlington talks about his Bicycling article, "Why Johnny Can't Ride."

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

Remember riding your bike to school? Nearly half of kids used to walk or bike back in 1969, but that dropped to just 13 percent by 2009. With childhood obesity rising and efforts to get kids off the couch and up and active, this seems an obvious fit: Encourage them to ride to school again, right? Well, it turns out that is not so easy.

We're going to talk about why, but we'd like to hear from you: What's keeping your kids from riding or walking to school? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. David Darlington wrote a piece in Bicycling magazine, "Biking to School: Why Johnny Can't Ride." He joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Welcome to the program.

DAVID DARLINGTON: Thanks a lot. Good to be here.

LUDDEN: Now, you followed a family in upstate New York that tried to send their son to school on a bike and actually faced a huge backlash. Tell us what happened.

DARLINGTON: Yeah, it was a very bizarre episode that occurred three years ago in the Saratoga Springs, New York. It was Bike-to-Work day, probably all around the country that day, in fact, and a kid named Adam Marino decided that he wanted to ride his bike to school because his parents, Jeannette and Clem(ph) had always told him that school was his job. So he wanted to bike to his job. And they were avid cyclists anyway, so it wasn't a big surprise. They had ridden from Buffalo to Albany twice and things like that.

LUDDEN: Wow.

DARLINGTON: So anyway, Jeannette accompanied Adam to school. And when they got there and he was locking his bike up in front amid all the school buses and cars shuttling their kids in by motor, suddenly it was as if some kind of intruder had infiltrated from outer space or something. The school principal got a call that there was a bike getting involved with the buses.

LUDDEN: Oops.

DARLINGTON: So the assistant principal came out - Adam had already gone inside - and asked Jeannette, what are you doing here? And she thought that was a funny question and asked him if he rode his bike, because it was Bike-to-Work day, and he informed her that bicycles were not allowed at Saratoga or - sorry, at Maple Avenue Middle School.

LUDDEN: And why not? I mean, I can understand if you don't want to ride right in front of a school bus. I don't know if that's what happened, but what was the reason the school gave?

Basically the same reason that a lot of parents give for not letting their kids ride to school these days, which is safety concerns, that basically to get, you know, from downtown or from their home in Saratoga Springs to the school, a lot of them had to ride about two or three miles, the school is situated on a busy U.S. highway, which, ironically enough, is an official bike route with bike lanes on it. But it has a lot of traffic. Adam and Jeannette actually took a back way down a trail through the woods so they were not on that road. But the principal was scared about that. And also, the other thing that parents are worried about today, of course, is the possibility of abductions, kidnapping and...

Right. So - but I would think that would be the parents' concern. Does the school have a liability if Adam were to have been kidnapped or hit on the way to school or back?

DARLINGTON: Yeah. And Stuart Byrne, the principal of the school, told me that, that that was one of his concerns. And in fact, it's a legitimate one. There have been some pretty outrageous cases. There was one in New Jersey where the New Jersey Supreme Court actually enabled a big settlement to some parents, whose kid, despite previous notices of an early dismissal day, did not pick their kid up. He walked away from school. He got hit by a car and paralyzed from the waist down. And the school actually had to pay damages for that.

LUDDEN: Oh, my. So schools are liable. Or they fear they might be.

That's right. But that's something that - it's an issue that needs to be addressed. There's a person who's quoted in my article named Lenore Skenazy, who you may have heard of. She has a book and a blog called "Free-Range Kids." She got a lot of notoriety several years ago for her letting her nine-year-old son ride the subway alone in New York City. And she was a newspaper columnist at the time she wrote about it, and that created a firestorm, that people accused her of being a, you know, careless parent and not caring about her kid and et cetera, et cetera.

You know, my husband has told me many times, he actually was in Paris at that age and riding the Metro to school all alone. And, you know, I wouldn't let my kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Is it a generational thing?

DARLINGTON: I think it is. And, you know, we're talking about a lot of big broad cultural changes that have taken place. That statistic that you mentioned - in 1969, 48 percent of kids walked to school. Today it's 13 percent. And part of that is suburban sprawl. Today's schools are - they build schools bigger and further from the center of town with more kids, so it's further away. I personally think that's all the more reason for kids to ride bikes. It's a good reason for them not to walk. It's pretty far. But a bicycle is a good solution to that. And then there's all the other stuff that, you know, adults are prey to these days, mostly, as Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, puts it, things involving a small screen, namely computers and video games and things like that.

LUDDEN: You're talking about it being more dangerous on the roads maybe as people text and drive...

DARLINGTON: Well, actually, no, that's - that's actually not what I meant, but that's another good point. I wrote an article for Bicycling four years ago about cyclists getting ran over by inattentive drivers. And a lot of it has to do with texting while driving and things like that. But what I was actually referring to was, you know, kids are - they're in front of the computer or they're playing video games rather than out on their bikes.

There's - I think there's an essential disconnect that we have nowadays. I don't want to get into too much, you know, rosy nostalgia. But when I was a kid, like you just said, I rode to school. And there's a difference today, it seems, between recreation and transportation. A lot of kids still ride bikes, but they kind of do it with their parents on the weekend for fun. But the idea of actually using a bicycle to get somewhere is alien to them. Oliver Robinson, who is the superintendent of schools in Clifton Park, just south of Saratoga Springs, who has done a lot of great things there for kids and bikes, he admitted to me that even his own sons, they ride up and down the street for an hour for fun. And then they come inside and say, Dad, drive me to the store to get a Gatorade.

LUDDEN: Hmm. Let's get a caller on the line. Kurt(ph) is in Oakland, California. Welcome to the program.

KURT: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead with your comment or question.

KURT: Yes. I'm an avid cyclist, raced in college, commute to work daily by bicycle. And I don't allow my children to ride to school yet. My daughter is 11, and she's getting to the age where she probably could, but the route to school is - there's just - there's so much traffic. I would really be concerned about her getting there safely. It's also rather hilly. But ironically there's a cemetery that is beautiful, that is a perfect link(ph) to her school. But unfortunately they locked the back gate and you can't get through. So the possible non-traffic alternative is not viable at this point.

LUDDEN: And are you in a city, in a suburb?

KURT: In Oakland, which is...

LUDDEN: You're right in the city?

KURT: Right in the city. Yeah.

DARLINGTON: Hey, Kurt. This is David.

KURT: Hi, David.

DARLINGTON: I'm your neighbor. I live in Berkeley.

KURT: Oh, great.

DARLINGTON: I think I might even know the cemetery you're talking about, although...

KURT: Yeah.

DARLINGTON: Maybe not. There's more than one.

LUDDEN: Have you asked the school to open up that cemetery?

KURT: I'm sorry?

LUDDEN: Have you asked the school to open up that cemetery?

KURT: I haven't spoken to the school about it. We talked to the cemetery briefly, but they said it was a liability issue. But I know residents of the neighborhood are constantly trying to get through there because it's such a great walking and running location. It's really beautiful.

DARLINGTON: You know, there's - another part of my article, I don't know if you've heard of the organization Safe Routes to School?

KURT: I have, yes.

DARLINGTON: That is the main organization nationwide that is trying to do something about this. And it's a fantastic organization. It's federally funded, but it also has a lot of local chapters. And this is their entire reason for being, is to create safe routes to schools for kids to walk and bicycle. And they try to work with communities. Every community is different, so the local chapters, you know, have customized approaches for every town. But the traffic enhancements that they proposed are also known to, you know, do good things for communities, like traffic calming and bike lanes and bike pass and stuff like that.

The unfortunate thing right now - Safe Routes to School is funded - has been funded since 2005 by the transportation bill, which expired in 2009. It's been in the news a lot lately because it's been extended nine times temporarily. And the latest one happened on March 31st. It's now due again to be extended on July 1st. And with the situation that we have in Congress right now, it's deadlocked. It's actually passed the Senate. There is still - it still maintains funding for traffic enhancements and Safe Routes to School. But in the House of Representatives, it's stalled for the usual reasons. And there is some pretty depressing rhetoric that goes around - on around this.

There's a county in Alabama that actually rejected the Safe Routes to School grant. The local board voted by a slight majority to reject it. And one of the things they said in their statement is that this is the kind of thing that's ruining this nation, namely federal dollars being channeled to local programs.

LUDDEN: Oh, politics interfering there. All right. Well, Kurt, thank you so much for the call.

KURT: Thank you. We'll try to get out with the kids at least on bike to school (unintelligible)...

LUDDEN: All right.

KURT: So thanks for covering the topic. OK. Bye-bye.

LUDDEN: Take care. Bye-bye. And let's hear from Natalie in Nashville. Hi, Natalie.

NATALIE: Hi. I'm calling because I am a teacher to school, and I only live about four miles from where I work. I thought often about biking to school. I agree with some previous statements. It's on a busy road. I'm afraid about crossing. I've talked with some students that I teach about it, and they all kind of give me like a look, why would you bike to school? You know, and I'm wondering - I teach in kind of an affluent area - if this is a status thing, if they like to show off the ability that they all can have a car. And if so, what can we do to make this less of a black sheep of the transportation opportunities? Because I really think, at least in my area, it's definitely maybe a status issue.

DARLINGTON: Well, you know, you're talking about a problem that has existed in the United States for decades and decades. Despite the fact that cycling has grown tremendously over the last, say, 20 years as a recreational and fitness sport, largely owing, I think, to Lance Armstrong, among other things, it's - there's still this, you know, America is such a car-centric culture, as we all know, that this was what I called in my article the Maple Avenue mindset, referring to the middle school where the Marinos went, which is that - it's what Andy Clarke of League of American Bicyclists says: Anything not related to cars is either a nuisance or an afterthought.

And in some communities, particularly lower class communities, bicycles have low status. It shows that, you know, you can't afford a car, supposedly. When I was growing up, even, you know, when I got to be a teenager and I still kept riding my bike, you know, I remember the sister of a friend of mine said, aren't you getting kind of old for that? You know, it's all this weird attitude about, you know, in America bicycles are in the way.

LUDDEN: So in other words, we need some campaign to make bike riding cool?

DARLINGTON: Yeah, and that's what Safe Routes to School tries to do. Robert Ping, the Portland organizer for them, said that's exactly - that is his number one priority when they come into a community, is to try and - they try to stress the cool factor. They figure out what it is, what's going to make bicycling seem cool in this town.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Natalie, thanks so much for the call.

NATALIE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And Julia in Salina, Kansas, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JULIA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. We live within a half mile of a school that's right in the middle of a residential area, and my kid and about a half dozen others ride and walk their bikes, and ride their bikes or walk, and nobody walks. Nobody rides. They don't have to cross any busy streets, nothing. But what I see is the parents picking up because they got another activity to take the older kid to. So you got to pick up the kid because you got to get the next one to soccer or piano or football.

LUDDEN: Logistics, logistics.

DARLINGTON: You know, that's exactly what Lenore Skenazy talks about. She says, after abductions and kidnapping, which are actually very much overblown - the amount of kids that, you know, get abducted, much less murdered, is miniscule in this country. But after that, parents' biggest fear is that their child will fall behind, and so there's all these after-school activities that are scheduled, and there's never a free moment. And this is something that Richard Louv, the author of "Last Child in the Woods," talks about.

There are so many activities, and kids think taking things out of - taking kids out of nature today, that there's a real - he's identified something called nature-deficit disorder, which is, you know, the lack of familiarity with just, you know, kind of spontaneous play building forts and, you know, catching frogs and tree houses and, you know, that kind of thing, that seems to have really waned today in the midst of all our scheduled activities.

LUDDEN: Julia, thanks so much...

NATALIE: The other issue for our middle schooler, we wanted him to ride his bike, but, you know, school starts at 7:20. It's dark. You can't ride your bike when it's dark.

DARLINGTON: Well, yeah, I think it is - it's certainly a seasonal thing in northern cities. Although you'd be surprised that what a lot of these towns - you know, in places in Minnesota, North Dakota, where, you know, you would never guess that they ride to school in the winter, they still do. And there are things, you know, bikes have lights. There's all kinds of safety features for bikes that are available.

LUDDEN: Julia, thanks so much for the call. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. There's an email from Claudia in Tucson, Arizona, who writes: We live less than .5 miles from my daughter's school, but have to cross the major road with no light or crosswalk, and there are no sidewalks or bike lanes along the street the school is on. It's simply not safe and that's a real shame. David Darlington, isn't the CDC charged with trying to design neighborhoods to make them more pedestrian and, I guess, bike friendly? And is this specifically targeted at schools in some way?

DARLINGTON: I'm not sure if it's targeted at schools. I think schools are always part of it because, you know, kids are, you know, an essential part of any community, and things like obesity and diabetes have been growing among kids. The latest figure is that 17 percent of American kids now are obese, which is three times as high as it was in 1980. But Arthur Wendel, who is at the CDC, is in charge of something called the Healthy Community Design Initiative, and their job is to try and help redesign communities to be more prone to active transportation because that is one of the prime ways to solve these problems.

And the reason that, you know, the nation's public health agency, the CDC, has gotten involved in it partly is health care costs are going up so much. Those, again - like something like 17 percent of a family's income today is spent on health care, whereas 30 years ago it was 5 percent, and they're projecting, I think, 20 percent by 2019. So these are national concerns, and another good reason for federal dollars to be going toward things like Safe Routes to School, I think.

LUDDEN: All right. David Darlington is a contributing writer for Bicycling magazine. We posted a link to his article at npr.org. Click TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from our bureau in New York. He's in that city for the James Beard Awards. He's nominated for his book "An Ideal Wine," about the evolution of the California wine industry. Don't drink while you're riding your bike. Another area of expertise. David, we wish you good luck.

DARLINGTON: I agree.

LUDDEN: Thanks so much.

DARLINGTON: Thank you.

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

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