Safe Routes, Cool Routes to School

In the most recent issue of AMC Outdoors, Senior Editor Marc Chalufour described how Biddeford, Maine, fifth-grader Matt Perkins got to school one day a week last winter. Each Wednesday morning, Matt would show up at Biddeford’s Community Bicycle Center bundled in layers of clothing, wearing a hat underneath his bike helmet, and rolling a bike with hand-made metal-studded tires. He’d meet up with Dillon Teske, an Americorps volunteer, and together they’d ride to Biddeford Intermediate School. Matt was into it, claiming, “I bike everywhere I go.”

Matt Perkins’ story is unusual. Here’s a fifth-grader who rides his bike to school through a Maine winter. Here’s a reliable adult guide who shows up every Wednesday morning to escort Matt to school. And, behind the scenes, here are well-marked bike trails, community programs that teach bike safety, and a school and parents who support one child’s effort to get to school safely under his own power.

Sadly, Matt’s experience is all too rare. In 1969, more than 40 percent of students walked or rode their bicycles to school. In 2009, the rate was 13 percent.

The rate is low partly because we are even more firmly enmeshed in a car culture now than we were then. According to the nonprofit organization Safe Routes to School, half of all children who live within a half-mile of their schools are driven there. And our communities — many of which have seen ever-increasing, ever-faster car traffic — are no longer designed for safe walking or bicycling. Nationally, one-third of traffic deaths for children under the age of 14 occur when cars strike children who are walking or biking. In some places, the risk is even higher: According to the New York State Department of Health’s Bureau of Injury Prevention, the leading cause of injury hospitalization and death among 5 to 9 year olds in New York State is being struck, as pedestrians, by motor vehicles.

But changes are occurring — like Matt Perkins’ weekly bike rides to school. Twenty-five U.S. senators (that’s one-quarter of the Senate) signed on to co-sponsor S. 1156, the reauthorization bill for the Safe Routes to School Program, which helps underwrite programs like the one that got Matt Perkins to school. The bill is likely to be available in draft form later this month. Visit the Safe Routes to School National Partnership for information on what is happening at the state level.

Doing what it takes to increase the number of kids getting to school on their own power is a worthwhile initiative on several levels: from reducing carbon emissions to reducing childhood obesity, from teaching self-reliance to putting a little fun back into the school day. Riding to school might even help with self-image and social standing. Tooling into the parking lot on homemade studded bike tires on a frigid morning in Maine: How cool is that?

Learn more

- National Walk or Bike to School Day is coming up on October 6.
- Resources, including materials to create and promote a “Safe Routes to School” program.

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Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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