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Loper: Creating a biking and walking culture at Seattle’s schools

Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to welcome a new columnist to the Seattle Bike Blog lineup. Clint Loper has been a big force behind Seattle’s bike-to-school efforts in the last decade. Now biking and walking to school is growing so quickly, we may be reaching the tipping point where kid-powered transportation becomes mainstream at neighborhood schools. Clint hopes school communities across the city can learn from each other to build on that momentum.

Full racks at Bryant
Spring 2012 school drop-off zone at Bryant Elementary

It’s been less than a decade, but 2004 seems like a long time ago. Bike culture was different then. Lance still had his seven yellow jerseys, for one thing, and his doping adventures were just a rumor. It seemed like many folks were lusting after Trek Madones. Now all my friends want longtails or handbuilt city bikes. There was no bicycle master plan for Seattle, not even one that emphasized bike lanes and sharrows. In fact, there was a lot less bike infrastructure of any kind in this city.

And hardly anyone biked to school. I know because my oldest daughter began kindergarten that year.

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The first day of school in 2004 was a classic, beautiful September morning—sunny and warm, and rich with the sounds of kids running and laughing and the sense of anticipation of a new school year. For my family it was the beginning of a new era of having school age children.

We had planned to walk that morning, since that was just how folks got to school, right? My daughter was a bit too young to ride her bike the one-mile commute, so walking seemed like the obvious choice. My wife and I rallied some neighbors and we all walked to school together.

Thinking back on it now, I didn’t notice as we were walking that there weren’t many other families out there doing the same thing. I was too busy enjoying the day, the company of my neighbors, and the anticipation of the school year. I also didn’t notice that there were virtually no kid and family bikes on the road.

What I do remember though, is being absolutely shocked at the car traffic as we neared school. As a daily bike commuter, and until then a father with no school-age children, I had no idea of the congestion and madness of school drop-off time. I guess I had always avoided the school zones as I rode my bike downtown to my day job.

Near school, there were cars queued up around several blocks waiting to drop off their kids. Of course there were lines of yellow buses as well, but mostly single family cars coming from every direction. The air was thick with exhaust and the sound of engines idling. And our first walk to school included the challenges and nervousness of crossing all that traffic.

I was appalled and dismayed. Could this really be our local school? Our community? It certainly wasn’t what we had signed up for when we chose to send our daughter to our neighborhood school.

Slowly a group of parents—with more signing on each year—set out to change the culture at our local school. I’ll tell you a little more about it in future posts.

As it turns out, parents at other schools have been working over this past decade to do the same, and the pace has accelerated in recent years. This kind of work involves not only improvements to infrastructure, but also efforts to educate, encourage and support families in giving active transportation a try.

Are we approaching a tipping point in the transportation habits of school-age kids and their families? I don’t know, but I hope so. As Tom noted here on Seattle Bike Blog last fall, 2012 “may just have been the year biking to school in Seattle broke into the mainstream.” I think he’s right, and I believe it has potential for a huge positive impact on the overall transportation culture of our city.

Biking has so many awesome experiences. Cruising down a sweetly paved mountain road at high speed, making it through a challenging stretch of singletrack without dabbing, jumping on the pedals when the bell lap starts at the local criterium or ‘cross race. Or just the epic daily Seattle commute, getting from here to there safely and efficiently all year long.

I’ve tried most of those and dabbled in lots of other bikey adventures too. But having been involved in many aspects of biking and bike culture over the years, I’ve found that nothing is as fun and inspiring as riding to school with a kid. Or even better with a bunch of kids! The sights and sounds of dozens of kids getting to school under their own power are not to be missed.

I hope to share some of these experiences, as well as some of the opportunities and challenges of biking to school in Seattle, with readers of this blog.  We’ll also continue to share tips and ideas over at walk.bike.schools, which was set up last year to foster collaboration among schools and community members, and to help develop a stronger city-wide voice for more bikeable and walkable schools.

Since 2004 Seattle has seen the beginnings of culture change at some of our schools. But many school drop-off zones are still choked with cars, and there is a long way to go. I hope our cycling community can embrace school-age biking as much as it has supported improving conditions for adults. I also hope it continues to be a fun and interesting ride!

Clint Loper is Seattle Bike Blog’s Bike to School Expert, a co-founder of walk.bike.schools and bike-to-school programs at several local schools. Also a member of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board and a parent of two school-age kids, Clint and his family of four ride their bikes to work and school nearly every day.

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9 responses to “Loper: Creating a biking and walking culture at Seattle’s schools”

  1. Gary

    We also need to focus on letting kids ride to school without the adults! Of course being from a generation that rode to school/walked to school with nary an adult in sight I wonder how we managed to get so over protective of our children. It’s ridiculous.

    1. Leif Espelund

      This! I ride 6th Ave NW South from Greenwood down to the BG every morning and it is a perfect route for kids to ride to West Woodland Elementary (I’m sure 4th and 5th work for some as well, but 6th is the only one that goes all the way through from Holman down to Leary with only a couple turns). Every once in awhile I see parents riding with their kids (usually on the sidewalk), but this morning for the first time in about 2 years I passed a kid on his own riding to school. We need more kids out there biking (bike trains!)

  2. Ellie P.

    Are there ways that non-parents can help? For example, I’d consider volunteering to escort a bike train for a school in my neighborhood or along my commute to work. I agree that kids should ideally be able to bike themselves, but not everyone is old enough or lives in a safe enough area to do so.

    It would be like being a crossing guard on wheels?

    1. Clint

      Yes, that would be great! I’m sure most schools would welcome participation from community members. Depending on what neighborhood you live in, there may be a school with a bike to school program. Your idea of “a crossing guard on wheels” is a good one!

      And I think you are right about kids ability to bike on their own.It depends so much on their age, experience, and what traffic they need to navigate. But that’s one goal of many of these programs: to help kids learn to bike independently and skillfully so they can ride on their own. And many begin to by late elementary school or the beginning of middle school.

  3. Per my previous comment as a Bryant alumni, I have mixed feelings. In those days, schools used students as the crossing guards. It seems strange to know I am qualified to do a job (for pay) that I did for free 50 years ago…

    1. Clint

      Hi Steve. Schools still use student crossing guards, typically on the neighborhood streets immediately adjacent to the school, and they work really well. Typically adult crossing guards are needed at the arterial crossings, where traffic volumes, speeds, and complexity aren’t conducive to having students manage traffic.

  4. Matthew

    First and foremost, yes, it’s a child safety issue.

    But as the author alludes to, the school-zone traffic mess also affects other cyclists as well, even those of us with no children. My daily commute takes me past a small Montessori school called Pacific Crest (on 6th Ave NW). It is almost certainly the most harrowing part of my commute — whether or not it is technically more dangerous than, say, the awful intersection of Stone Way and the Burke-Gilman trail, I definitely feel more vulnerable when contending with the chaotic double-parking, stop-and-start traffic, unexpected backing up or passing, etc. on what is otherwise a rather peaceful alternative to 8th Ave NW.

    If I, as a relatively experienced urban cyclist, feel uneasy when dealing with this mess, I can’t imagine how a child on a bike would feel trying to ride down 6th Ave to school.

    1. Leif Espelund

      There is a lot of activity at this spot, though I find most of the parents to be pretty alert as to what is going on (probably since so many kids are walking around).

  5. biliruben

    Thanks for the inspiration, Clint.

    I wish there were some broader policy with both Seattle Public Schools as well as SDOT to do everything possible to make non-motorized transport safe and inviting, by providing infrastructure within a few blocks of the school, at a minimum.

    It often seems that they do the least they are able, because of short-term budget constraints, which end up costing them more in the end, in the form of paying for buses. It also costs the neighbors, in terms of the impact from the daily lineup of cars, and the community as a whole, in terms of impacts on mental and physical health.

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