I grew up in a small town and always walked or rode my bike to school. I don’t recall taking the bus until I was in high school, and even then, it seemed sort of exotic.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 48 percent of kids walked or biked to school in 1969 but, by 2010, that figure had plunged to 13 percent.
At the same time, obesity rates have soared among children. Today, about 25 million children and adolescents — more than 33 percent — are now overweight or obese or at risk of becoming so.
Public health officials say there’s a connection. A U.S. DOT program, called Safe Routes to School, encourages walking and biking to school as a way for children to incorporate physical activity into their daily lives. Research suggests that if kids fit in at least an hour of exercise a day, they will become healthy, active adults.
Since 2005, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has awarded about $20 million in federal and state funds to support the Safe Routes program throughout the state. Many of these programs support curriculum in schools to help students learn safe walking and biking behaviors.
“The ultimate goal is to get more students involved in walking and biking, and make it safer,” said Dave Cowan, MnDOT’s Safe Routes to School coordinator.
Minnesota, he added, is one of the few states that dedicates state money to these projects. All told, more than 14,800 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have been awarded federal funds for Safe Routes to School activities since 2005.
One of the programs involves grant funding for schools and organizations for bicycle fleets. These fleets usually consist of 40 bikes, helmets, basic supplies and a trailer to store and move them. Kids from grades four through eight use the fleet bikes to learn essential rules of the road.
The curriculum, called Walk! Bike! Fun!, was developed for Minnesota schools with help from the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, a St. Paul nonprofit group. Usually classes take place during physical education periods, or in after-school programs.
Start with fourth-graders
“One of the largest hurdles as a teacher is the availability of equipment,” Cowan said. Field trips using the fleet bikes are often part of the program, although Cowan says “developmentally speaking, most students lack the ability or skills to properly time traffic and make judgment calls up until the age of 10. We recommend that teachers start at 10 years old, that’s usually the fourth grade. We can work with kids before then, but not on road.”
The curriculum involves teaching kids how to cross the road safely, a primer on traffic laws, the parts on a bike and proper attire (including a helmet), how to communicate with pedestrians and motorists while biking, and proper positioning on the road.
Safety is a key component. In 2009, about 23,000 children ages 5 to 15 were injured and more than 250 killed while walking or bicycling in the United States, according to the U.S. DOT.
The deadline for grant applications is June 1. Four fleets of bicycles were awarded for the program’s inaugural round in 2014-15, and each fleet costs about $32,000, Cowan said. About $96,000 to $130,000 will likely be awarded this time around.
Wednesday is National Bike to School Day, which began in 2012 to encourage kids to bike to school. Schools across the country have planned programs to do just that.
As for me, I didn’t need any encouragement to hop on my hot-pink Schwinn Stingray and pedal off, leaving all my adolescent worries behind.