EXCERPT: Youth Bike Education: A National “Movement” Movement

Recently, the BLAST program was featured in the online publication Atlas Lens. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Orange practice cones pockmark the blacktop at James Elementary School in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast district. Gusts of wind send flurries of leaves and petals past a group of students sitting attentively around an instructor. A small fleet of matching bikes wait in a neat formation by the building.

“Can anyone tell me”, he asks, “one of the three rules of the road?” Half a dozen kids raise their hand. One girl calls out, “Ride right!”

“That’s absolutely correct”, replies the instructor, “We always ride on the right side of the road!”.

The program is called Bicycle Lesson and Safety Training, or “BLAST” for short. Initiated in Kansas City 2011 by local bike and pedestrian advocacy group, BikeWalkKC, BLAST has grown into one of the premier youth bike education programs in the country. Moreover, it seems the program came at a critical time for kids in Kansas City and around the country.

For many of us, one fateful day represents one of the most liberating and empowering moments of the human experience: the day you learn to ride a bike. Rubber gliding across pavement, wind in your face, bike riding is every kid’s first opportunity to take mobility into their own hands. From school, to parks, to houses around the neighborhood, a bike is truly a vessel of freedom for youth and adults alike.

However, it’s a right-of-passage that fewer and fewer kids today are able to experience. According to statistics, youth bicycle riding is on the decline in the US. Between 2000 and 2010, youth bike riding rates dropped roughly 6%. Today, just 20%, or 1 in 5, of American youth ride their bikes at least six times per year. For an activity once assumed to be a fundamental pastime, it appears the “American Bicycle Dream” is in danger.

What affect is this trend having on today’s youth? It is no coincidence that this period of youth biking declination parallels similar increases in childhood obesity and inactivity. A study from CDC found that between 1999 and 2010, childhood obesity rates climbed 2.5% on top of what were already record highs. Today, over 17% of children and adolescents in America are obese with even far more overweight.

In addition to unhealthy diet, this growing endemic has been largely caused by a proliferation of sedentary lifestyles. According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, just one-third of children are physically active on a daily basis. Instead, much of that time is being devoted to stationary activities fueled largely by electronic devices. America’s youth spends up to 7.5 hours per day in front of a screen.

Moreover, institutionalized physical activity has found itself on the chopping block across the country. As school priorities shift to increasing standardized test scores (despite a large body of research to the contrary), more and more districts are reducing or eliminating outright, recess and P.E. courses. In fact, only six states in the country require physical education in every grade K-12 (Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, and Vermont).

This is not to say that these problems are caused solely by decreases in youth bike riding rates. Rather, both are part of the same trend. That is, health and physical activity for children is dropping on the priority list for parents and school districts in favor of intellectual activities (still important) and convenience. Or perhaps more likely, this is an issue whose absence was once taken for granted. But now that we have the problem, it’s time for a solution. For a growing number of groups around the country, that solution is bikes.

So why aren’t kids strapping on their helmets and hitting the pavement? We look to a number of explanations.  Schools are being built further away from neighborhood centers, cycling to many is perceived as “inconvenient”, and many districts simply do not encourage biking or walking to school to the extent to which they once did. However, the critical concern for most parents is safety.

Read more over at Atlas Lens.

Posted in Bicycling, BikeWalkKC News, News, Safe Routes to School.