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Home > Blog > Active Transportation > Why and How to Bike to School with Kids

 

A couple of years ago, I was excited that my daughter had snagged a spot in our catchment-area French Immersion school. I eagerly attended the info night with her only to be severely let down when a large portion of the evening was devoted to how and where it was acceptable to drop off your child… by car. There was no encouragement to walk or bike to school, at least nothing that was memorable. I left the space feeling a bit numb about the public school journey we were about to embark on for the next 16 years (between my eldest and youngest).

As an educator, myself, it disheartened me that this place of education was not promoting a better solution. They should have been marketing it hard!

active transportation

My then preschooler commuting home from the neighbourhood preschool on her Strider in winter.

Fast forward a couple of years and we are now embarking on our second year at this school after a pretty wildly successful year of almost exclusively commuting actively for ten months, in spite of having quite possibly the longest winter ever with the most cumulative snow on record!

 

Mindset

The night of the orientation was the night I resolved to never drive the kids to school.

Never say never, there will always be some time where it just makes sense to drive, but most of the time it will absolutely make more sense for me to walk or bike.

I walked 1.2 km (uphill) to elementary school as a kid, did you? It was too far to walk as of middle school, when I carpooled, caught the school bus, or biked along the highway.

When my eldest started preschool, I imposed a rule on myself that I would self-propel at least one way each school day: drop-off or pick-up. This break in period helped me to wrap my head around including more movement into my daily routine even with two young children (one who was an infant at the time).

I tried to embrace a growth mindset by setting small, achievable goals, convincing myself that if many other parts of the world could commute to school and work using their bodies, that I could get my kid the 2 km to preschool. I also had a brand new baby and a dog that needed walking; if we did not walk to school then the probability of getting out of the house again for a dog walk was slim!

My then baby has now started her second year of preschool and we have almost exclusively walked or biked both ways. It’s great. It’s a beautiful journey, for which I am grateful. I have also come to realize how much money these little trips save us, which is very important as we have worked hard to make me being a full-time parent a financially viable option.

 

Perceived danger

There is this misconception that walking or biking to school is dangerous and that a car is safer. In fact, “the single biggest danger in a Canadian child’s life is the car“. And by promoting the car as a way of life we are setting them up for a more sedentary existence which also opens them up to a host of health and well-being issues, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, dementia, and some cancers: physical inactivity is “a global pandemic”This article goes on to say that active transportation is known to help 25 chronic conditions that Canadians are facing.

Did you know that only 9% of Canadian kids get the recommended level of activity per day? 9%!!! That scares me for them and their future. Selfishly, it also scares me as a taxpayer.

We are so numb to the risks we take every time we get in a car and we have blown out of proportion how risky it is to ride a bike. Yet, unintentional accidents — most of which are preventable, i.e. incidents not accidents — are the number 1 killer of Canadian children and youth, with motor vehicles being at the top of the list for these “accidents”.

Most children live within an appropriate distance to walk or cycle to school. It would be great if school boards and cities were more concerned with helping to promote these active modes of travel, helping to raise the next generation of active commuters, than constantly designing roads for people in cars.

 

Money

The drive to our school is 2.5 km, one way. For our family, this means 10 km per school day of which there are usually 183 per school year. Using the federal government rate for travel of $0.55/km, this is how much it costs me to drive my kid to school: 2.5 km x 4 x 183 days x $0.55/km = >$1000/school year, at least. So, we bike and save money. Lots of it as far as I am concerned. I have thought a lot about these numbers and it really does make a huge difference for our single income family.

Our savings are a drop in the bucket compared to the potential financial effect on our nationally funded healthcare system on the whole, not to mention our municipal budgets where policing is a huge cost — a lot of policing deals with incidents and accidents amongst cars!

Cycling as a means to get around in a city is an extremely fiscally conservative act.

 

Time and energy

It’s a challenge to squeeze in proper, heart-pumping exercise with two young kids. I choose to spend a lot of time outside, but seven years in to this parenting journey and my movement is still often at a toddling pace. This is where biking is a lifesaver for me. Instead of spending 91.5 hrs on my butt in my car this year, I will spend 200+ hours riding, walking, or jogging back and forth to school.

Great for me! Not only am I being active, I’m not in the position where I have to be sedentary in the car for extended periods of time and then find time to exercise on top of that (…as if).

Awesome for my big kid who will be mostly riding under her own steam, helping her to get her daily recommended exercise.

Amazing modeling for my youngest who is now often walking and biking herself to preschool.

That classifies as a win-win-win in my books. Yes, it does take me about 15 minutes to bike over to the elementary school (a little longer with my big kid riding), but in reality that is only about 5 minutes extra than most driving trips there due to timing of lights and traffic. And, I don’t have to warm up the car in the winter.

 

Our commute

We laugh as we have the proverbial commute that is uphill both ways — we live at the top of a hill on one side of the river valley and the elementary school is at the river bank on the other side. But, we are ever so fortunate to have all of our route on car-free infrastructure or quiet side streets. There are two tricky spots to navigate but the route is otherwise very safe in our opinions. And, one good thing about the hills is that snow clearing seems to happen on the steepest routes first!

We really do have great route for our bike to school as it follows the picturesque Elbow River valley bottom for a large portion of it. The only truly awful and dangerous intersection is right near our house and we have implemented a strict “you must wait for a car to stop for you” policy here due to a blind corner, jersey barriers promoting high speeds, and the end of a playground zone right before the intersection (so people are speeding up instead of slowing down). Otherwise, we are on pathways almost the entire way. We have to cross one major artery but there is a(n albeit awkwardly placed) hand-activated flashing signal for crossing. The last couple of blocks to school are on a quiet residential street (with the option to ride on the sidewalk, if preferred).

We navigate much of this territory on a daily basis through getting to swimming lessons, preschool, the bakery, dog walking, or just going to the park to play. Our kids are both very familiar with this route and are keenly aware of the geography and rules of the road.

 

Planning your commute

Here are my three ideas for having an enjoyable commute to school with your kid(s):

  1. Plan your route
  2. Do a practice run
  3. Form a biking bus

 

Plan your Bike to School route

Being prepared will help make you feel confident as well as taking the time to find the route with the best infrastructure, because infrastructure is your best bet for a pleasant and safe riding experience, especially for kids! Here’s a handy hand-out on route-planning basics, from HUB Cycling. Using those ideas and maybe poking around exploring your neighbourhood yourself, along with GoogleMaps, and you’ll be good to go.

GoogleMaps has biking info for many regions, including Calgary, and it is pretty good at helping to plan a good biking route, using your city’s bike data, maximizing pathways, cycle tracks, and designated on road bike routes, etc. It’s simple to “turn on” this information in GoogleMaps, on your desktop or in the mobile app:

  1. Go to maps.google.ca or open your GoogleMap app.
  2. Desktop: In the top left of your screen, you’ll see three horizontal bars, click on them and a bigger menu will open up.
    App: On the right of your screen you’ll see a little white circle with some diamonds indicating “layers”. Click on it.
  3. Select “Bicycling”. You will notice a lot more detail in your maps now, solid green and brown lines, dotted lines, etc. There’s a legend at the bottom of the map screen.
  4. Use directions like normal, but select the bicycle instead of the car.

There’s also a website that collects data on cyclist safety and maps it. Check it out if you are new to cycling in your neighbourhood and are unaware of trouble spots. I’ve honestly never used it, but just took a gander of it and am aware of many of the spots in my neighbourhood due to the #yycbike hashtag on Twitter or personal experience even walking.

 

Do a practice run

This will help you to figure out your timing for the morning rush. You might even be surprised about how it probably only takes you a couple of extra minutes, compared to driving. And, it’s faster than walking – it’s always nice to save time in the morning!

Do this on a weekend prior to changing your mode of travel. Ideally, practice at the end of summer, prior to school starting up again.

 

Form a biking bus

Meet children at designated spots along a designated route, like a bus but on bikes. You can all ride together!. Kids love having other buddies who bike, it validates what they’re doing and it’s just plain fun.

 

Other considerations

Last but not least, helmets. Your choice, but I’m pretty sure it’s the law in every jurisdiction in Canada for minors. Make sure it fits and is worn properly or it can cause more harm than good. We prefer smooth helmets (akin to the shape of a skull) with good flat coverage on the forehead, temple area, and at the back of the head (occipital bone area), including behind the ears. We’ve found these traits in kid helmets by Giro (like the Scamp) and Bern. Any other favourites that fit this bill? I’d love to read about them in the comments, below.

If you need help figuring out what your options are for carrying kids that are too small to ride on their own, yet, check out my blog posts on biking with babies: Part 1 (Babies) and Part 2 (Toddlers), as well as this overview on many ways to carry kids by bike.

 

More Ideas

  1. Give Active Transportation a Try This Year by Lindsay Bliek, published at ActiveForLife.com [3 Jan 2018]
  2. How to Get Started Using Active Transportation by Lindsay Bliek, published at ActiveForLife.com [3 Jan 2018]
  3. Active Transportation for Kids: Walk or Bike to School — dynamic/ongoing resource page recording interesting reads and quotes on this topic

 

 

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