More than a dozen bikes were parked in front of Rose Hill Elementary School one recent morning, and principal Samara Williams eyed them with pleasure.
That translated into roughly a dozen fewer cars clogging the Commerce City school’s small driveway, dropping off and picking up children. And a dozen youngsters who got a good morning’s exercise peddling them to school.
“We’re a neighborhood school, and most kids live within a one-mile radius,” said Williams. “We want them to walk or ride their bikes.”
To help encourage that, Rose Hill partnered this year with Bicycle Colorado to bring in a Safe Routes to School training program. Safety coordinators came in to teach the youngsters about bike safety, and to present them with free bike helmets. After completing the training, the children got to participate in a “bike rodeo” to show off their bike handling skills.
Read an earlier EdNews’ story about Safe Routes to School.
Bicycle Colorado, a statewide nonprofit bicycle advocacy organization, is one of the state’s leading recipients of Safe Routes to School funds, which are administered through the Colorado Department of Transportation. In 2010, more than $2 million in federal SRTS grants will fund more than two dozen projects around the state.
The really big-ticket items involve improved infrastructure to make pedestrian pathways around schools safer. But the grants also fund less-costly education and encouragement programs to get more students to walk or ride their bikes to school.
Since 2005, Bicycle Colorado has aggressively sought those funds to allow it to partner with school districts, health departments and other municipal groups to promote bike safety classes, bike clubs and other kid-friendly enticements.
This year, Bicycle Colorado is conducting programs in six school districts, including Adams 14, Adams 12, Denver, Boulder Valley, Poudre School District in Fort Collins, and Calhan schools. Elsewhere, other groups – such as Boltage in Boulder and the P.E.D.A.L. Cycling Club of Loveland – are also partnering with schools and other community groups to boost bike ridership and walking through a variety of programs and approaches.
“We’re looking to reverse a national trend in the number of students biking and walking to school,” said Dave Cowan, Education Director of Bicycle Colorado. “It’s about a quarter of what it was in the 1960s. It’s really a startling number. In the 1960s, 60 to 70 percent of students who lived within two miles of school walked or biked. Now it’s down to 14 percent.”
The reasons for such low bike ridership vary, depending on a given school’s demographics and location. So do the strategies for boosting it.
Different schools, different approaches
“In the wealthier schools districts, you might have a lot more parent involvement, more stay-at-home moms who are willing to get involved with programs to encourage kids to walk or bike to school,” said Jenna Berman, Education Program Manager for Bicycle Colorado.
“But in those districts, parents may be invested in having chosen a different school for their child, and they drive their kids to school. Whereas in a place like Commerce City, the kids will go to the school in the neighborhood.”
Cowan said Bicycle Colorado customizes its approach for different districts.
“The students in some schools have a lot of access to bicycles,” he said. “Then we emphasize the bicycling piece of it. But in other districts, the kids either don’t have bikes, or there’s a fear of the bikes being stolen if they bring them to school, so we emphasize the pedestrian angle more, organize ‘walking school buses,’ develop maps for recommended walking routes.”
At Rose Hill, biking was emphasized even before the school partnered with Bicycle Colorado this year to do a Safe Routes to School program. Every kindergartner at the school gets a free bicycle, and bikes are also given away at monthly assemblies. Williams said the school adopted a wellness program two years ago to battle the childhood obesity epidemic.
“I’ve had parents come up and thank me,” she said. “They’ve embraced the emphasis on biking and on exercise. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know what to do about my child being chubby.’ ”
Reaching out to middle schoolers
In Denver, Bicycle Colorado has partnered with Denver Health for several years now to promote the DPS Rides program, a bike safety program for elementary schools. Last year, the program was expanded to include Lake Middle School. This year, DPS Rides On – the middle school curriculum – will also be in Kunsmiller and Smiley.
“It’s a little tougher to get access to the kids in middle school,” Berman said. “At Lake, they have an after-school program run by Mi Casa, so we partnered with them to create an after-school bike club.”
Participants got six weeks of advanced bike safety instruction, and went on regular group bike outings. Those who attended all the safety classes got a free bicycle at the end of the program.
“In the 1960s, 60 to 70 percent of students who lived within two miles of school walked or biked. Now it’s down to 14 percent.”
–Dave Cowan, Bicycle Colorado
Eddie Romero, a 7th grader Lake Middle School, took part in the bike club last year, and he can’t wait to do it again this year.
“I wanted to get more exercise last year, and I did,” he said. “I really like riding bikes. On the last day our club met, we went to a park far, far away and rode our bikes all the way, and we ate Subway when we got there.”
Cody Buchanan, assistant manager of the after-school programs for Mi Casa Neighborhood Center, which is located within Lake, said it was “a huge treat” for kids at the low-income school to take home a mountain bike.
“A majority of our kids were already riding their bikes around the neighborhood anyway, so the big thing was to teach them to ride safely so they aren’t a danger to themselves or others,” Buchanan said.
“We’re looking at a different incarnation of the bike club here for next spring,” he added. “They’ll furnish us with another set of bikes we can have to run the program, and we’ll really look for the kids in last year’s club to step up as leaders.”
A high-tech alternative
In Boulder, a different model has emerged. Boltage – formerly known as Freiker (short for “frequent biker) – uses some high tech to track the number of kids who bike or walk to school, and keeps a running tally that’s accessible on the internet. Students win awards based on the number of bike or walking trips they log.
It all began several years ago when Boulder software engineer Rob Nagler wanted to encourage his young children to ride their bikes to school. He started offering them incentives – their choice of a small trinket for every five days they pedaled to school. It worked.
Other youngsters at his children’s school, Crest View Elementary, found out about the Nagler kids’ deal. Nagler – who biked with his children to school every day – handed out punch cards to the other student bikers. For every 10 punches, they, too, got to select a trinket.
Soon, Nagler determined there was a better way to do this than hanging out in front of school every day, punching kids punch cards. Four years ago, he built the first “freikometer,” a wireless, solar-powered radio frequency identification (RFID) tag reader.
Riders were given tags to attach to their backpacks. When they rode under the freikometer, the trip was counted and the data uploaded to a website.
“Once we had that technology, other schools heard about it. It was a technology we could put in other schools,” said Zach Noffsinger, a Boulder attorney who also serves as vice president of Boltage.
A few more technological improvements, and now the system can read the chips on participants’ backpack tags. It not only logs the trip but calculates the distance each student has traveled. Parents can go online to see how many trips their children have taken.
Today, freikometers – now called “zaps,” – have been installed in 32 schools nationwide, up from 13 in the spring. Six are in Colorado: Crest View and Foothill elementaries in Boulder, Burlington Elementary in Longmont, Casey Middle School in Boulder, Monroe Elementary in Denver and Calhan Elementary in Calhan. Noffsinger said a seventh is likely to be added soon.
- See a list of all the Safe Routes to School projects being funded in Colorado.
- The Colorado Department of Transportation has a tool kit for putting together a Walk to School or Bike to School Day.
- For tips on assessing the walk-ability or bike-ability of routes to school in your neighborhood, here’s a checklist.
The technology isn’t cheap. The first-year expenses are $5,090, which includes purchase of the zap, 500 RFID tags and one year of software use and support. After the first year, it costs $950 a year to use the software.
“I have no doubt that the price tag is a barrier to some schools,” Noffsinger said. “But we’re certainly seeing plenty of demand out there, and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Frankly, we don’t do a lot of marketing. We had over a 100 percent increase in the number of participating schools this year, and mostly it was just through word of mouth.”
“Freiker” became “Boltage” earlier this year to better reflect the program’s changing focus, Noffsinger said.
“Freiker was the name of our prototype system,” he said. “But it’s short for ‘frequent biker,’ and we needed to change the name to reflect a broader active transportation focus. We’ve really moved into the realm of walking as well as biking now.”
The results have been nothing short of astounding. On the first day of school at Crest View, 140 students logged a bike or walking trip to school. That’s more than a quarter of the student body.
“When the program at Crest View started, there were maybe six bikes parked in front of the school. The bike racks had tumbleweeds growing around them,” Noffsinger said. “Now they’ve installed 14 bike racks, and they’re continually adding more and we completely fill them up.
“In terms of tracking the kids, we saw a doubling of kids riding their bikes to school after we started the program, and we’ve seen great increases at other schools as well.”
Rebecca Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.