In suburban Cleveland, an astonishing number of children ride to school. Here’s what we can learn from them.
The early-morning sunlight slanted in low and strong, stretching over the gunmetal gray of Lake Erie and reaching beyond the budding greenery of Cahoon Park to touch down on the small figures on bikes rolling along the sidewalks on the south side of Wolf Road. If you were wandering by Bay Middle School, in the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village, this past Wednesday, you might not have thought much of it at first. Maybe these are just a few ambitious tweens opting out of the bus ride on a luminescent spring day.
But then, coming from the west, were another line of five or six kids. And back the other way, a full-blown pack of riders suddenly appeared, bearing down on the parking lot, followed by another group behind that. Soon a hundred kids have arrived on bikes, then 300, then 500, a few balancing violin cases or classroom projects on their handlebars. Their bikes swallowed the racks in front of the school, amoeba-like, and filled the grass around trees along the parking lot, then began to crowd the iron fence marking the school property. Meanwhile, full-sized buses pulled in with only five or six forlorn-looking children on board.
This display has been known to cause even locals to gape. “I’ve had a few friends drive by,” says principal Sean McAndrews, “and say, ‘What the heck is going on at your school?’”
What’s going on is the Century Cycles Bike to School Challenge , held every May. Century is a local bike shop, and over the past six years, with the help of teachers and administrators, owner Scott Cowan and his staff have built the biggest program of its kind in the United States. The numbers are astonishing: On May 8, this past Wednesday, Bay Middle School set a new record of 634 riders. That’s 77 percent of the population of the school.
And that’s one of only five schools in the Century program. Two others, Claggett and Rocky River middle schools, both broke their own records that same day, the latter tallying 59 percent of its student body on bikes. In all, 1,379 kids rode to classes in a single day. Organizers confess a sort of giddy bewilderment at all this. “The kids have taken it to a whole new level I never would have imagined,” says Jason Martin, principal of Bay High School.
Here’s how it works: Five area schools compete over three weeks to accumulate the most trips by bike. Each time a student arrives at school on a bicycle, he or she hands a volunteer a card to be stamped. Each stamp gives the child a chance to win a raffle in which the grand prizes are two new bikes donated by Raleigh. (Students get extra chances to win the raffle by wearing helmets.) “For us, we recognized right from the beginning that this was something special,” says Sean Burkey, the Cleveland-based Raleigh sales rep who facilitated the bike manufacturer’s role. Raleigh saw such potential in the program that it angled to become the sole bike sponsor and now donates other items as well—smaller stuff that organizers give away as additional daily incentives, Burkey says.
As the kids rolled in on Wednesday, each was handed a water bottle (also furnished by Raleigh). Other days they’re given ice cream donated by Honey Hut, or Subway coupons, or stickers or temporary tattoos. Each school also has a T-shirt design contest; the winning entry will be made into a shirt that is handed out to challenge participants.
The program began in 2007 when some high-school students decided to organize a protest against soaring gasoline prices. They announced they would ride to school instead of driving, and 300 students participated. “The first day it just took off,” principal Martin recalls. The school helped by valet-parking the bikes in the gym. Cowan heard about it and called, offering Century’s support. And off it went.
More numbers: In 2012, about 4,000 kids pedaled more than 52,000 miles. They burned about 885,428 calories while keeping roughly 57,292 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air as a result of 2,325 fewer gallons of gasoline being burned, organizers estimate. Those numbers will be bigger this year. And best of all, the kids keep riding when the challenge is over. Middle school math teacher Lawrence Kuh, one of the key volunteers, says at least a couple hundred continue cycling in after the competition ends. “That’s why we do it for three weeks,” says Tracey Bradnan, head of marketing at Century Cycles. “Because you can’t change habits in a day.”
To parents who are anxious about letting their kids ride on their own, or don’t live in an area with cycling-friendly streets, or reside in school districts that are lukewarm to the idea of kids riding, or worse, discourage it —and let’s face it, most of us fall into one or more of those categories—all of this sounds almost impossibly utopian.
But the Bike to School Challenge folks have a bigger ambition, and that’s to help others replicate the program. Bradnan last year helped Century Cycles win a Bikes Belong grant to create a template other school districts can follow. You can find the nuts and bolts at centurycycles.com/for/BTS. Meanwhile, here are a few general concepts to keep in mind:
Target the right ages
Bradnan, who is the mother of a Bay Middle School student, says fifth through eighth grade is “the sweet spot” for the challenge. The kids are old enough to take some responsibility for riding alone and keeping track of their challenge cards but not so old that they’re driving.
Be the change
Interestingly, the project is entirely grassroots—there is no government or national organization pulling the strings. The city of Cleveland, in fact, is falling off the pace in terms of bike-oriented infrastructure. After coming in at number 39 on Bicycling’s list of America’s most bike-friendly cities in 2010 , largely based on the vibrancy of its bike culture, the city dropped out of the top 50 last year, having been outpaced by Midwestern peers such as Indianapolis, Memphis, and Louisville. The point? Expect your bike-to-school program to go as far as you take it.
Neither Century Cycles nor the schools could pull off the program alone. The bike shop covers most costs and organization; the school staff provides volunteer help and cheerleading. Around the time the challenge starts, Principal McAndrews rides the halls of the school on his bike, ringing a bell and bellowing, “Bike to school!”
Make it competitive
The competitive aspect adds incentive beyond the giveaways. Kids like to win, as do adults. “When Rocky River [Middle School] got involved for the first time,” McAndrews says, grinning, “we crushed them.”
Consider the landscape
Bay Village has the advantage of a Netherlands-like landscape: It’s flat and compact, only about 5 miles from end to end. Kids are allowed to ride on the sidewalks, alleviating safety concerns. In towns with no lanes or rideable sidewalks, the first step may be asking for improved bike infrastructure.
Keep it safe
No matter what your streets look like, parents will be more willing to buy into a ride-to-school program if it manifests a clear focus on safety. Century Cycles holds safety fairs before the challenge starts to ensure kids know how to navigate intersections, signal turns, and more. Then the kids are more willing to buy in, too. “I think what has happened,” says McAndrews, “is kids have figured out that it really isn’t that hard to ride your bike.”
Set attainable goals
For schools starting out with bike programs, the idea is not to try to match Bay Middle School. “The goal isn’t going to be 70 percent of your school,” Bradnan says. “Maybe right now if it’s 3 percent or 5 percent, you can double that.”
Taken outside Rocky River Middle School, on May 8, 2013. (Sean Burkey)
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