Why Don't Kids Ride Bikes to School Anymore?

Why Don't Kids Ride Bikes to School Anymore? Photo Credit: Shutterstock Photo by Shutterstock

How many times have you started a sentence with the phrase back when I was a kid. The older we get, the more that phrase tends to come to mind. It's hard to witness certain changes in society without reminiscing, often with a degree of inaccuracy, about the way things used to be. "Kids used to play outside!" "Fruit tasted better back then." "People weren't addicted to social media because there wasn't any social media." The world has changed drastically in the past 60 years, in ways both good and bad. While there is still a lot of room for improvement, our society is one step closer to equality for African Americans, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. On the other hand, people are spending less time than ever outdoors, 20 percent of children are obese, and the average American spends over seven hours a day in front of a screen—that number is nine hours a day for children between the ages of 11 and 14.

Half of Kids in Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade Used to Walk or Ride to School

There are many differences between the current generation—Generation Z—and Baby Boomers, Generation X, and even Millennials. And one of those major differences is how children get to school. Back in 1969, 48 percent of students between the ages of five and 14 walked or biked to school. Today, just 11 percent of children walk or ride to school. The main reason parents cite for not allowing their children to walk or ride these days is distance, and while it is true that Americans now live further away from where they work, the percentage of children who live within one mile of their school hasn't changed drastically since 1969 (41 percent of K-8th graders in 1969 vs. 32 percent of K-8th graders in 2009 lived within one mile of school). All barriers that parents give for not allowing their children to walk or ride include:

  • Distance 61.5%
  • Traffic danger 30.4%
  • Bad weather 18.6%
  • Crime danger 11.7%
  • It goes against school policy 6%

While there are certainly some forms of danger, and inconveniences, associated with these reasons, it is a tragedy that more students aren't given the freedom to get themselves to and from school, particularly if they live within roughly a mile of their school. As any bike commuter or walker knows, there is no better way to start one's day than getting outside first thing and human-powering your way to your destination. It isn't just the exercise, being outside, or avoiding stop and go traffic; there is much deeper satisfaction in the act of commuting by your own physical capability than by motor vehicle. This sense of strength and independence is possibly even more important for children, who nowadays spend most of their waking lives under constant supervision, and are grappling with a mental health crisis—caused by climate change, the pandemic, and social media—the likes of which no previous generation can truly comprehend.

Safe Routes to Schools Programs

The average age of a bike crash victim is increasing. In 2007 the average age of a fatal bike crash victim was 40. In just 10 years (by 2018), the average fatal bike crash victim's age was 47. This is not a good thing. It simply means that fewer and fewer children and young people are riding, a trend that has been going on since the 1970s when car-dominance really began taking off. And, in places where fewer people ride bikes, studies have shown that roads actually become more dangerous for everyone: cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers.

Safe Routes Bicycle Colorado

Safe Routes to School programs are designed to get students outside, on their bikes or on their feet, and to teach safe commuting practices. Most Safe Routes to Schools programs use safety education as well as pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure improvements to promote riding and walking to school. Here in Colorado, Bicycle Colorado has been teaching kids how to ride bikes and how to navigate the streets safely since 2006, reaching more than 92,000 students in 225 schools within the past 16 years. Nationally, there are big goals for the Safe Routes to Schools programs. The US Department of Transportation hopes that these programs will help to:

  • Fight chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity
  • Reduce traffic fatality deaths by getting cars off the road
  • Reduce the effects of the climate catastrophe
  • Improve air quality

Safe Routes to Schools programs, as well as other bicycle advocacy and educational programs, are crucial in transforming our communities into more liveable, equitable, sustainable, and joyful places to live and work. We know that endless miles of urban sprawl, multi-level overpasses, and parking lots as far and long as the eye can see simply do not work. The days of American car-dominance need to come to an end for our sake, as well as the sake of the planet. Getting kids to walk or ride a mile or two to school is the first step.

The Fallacy of Believing That Car Travel is Safe

There's a saying that you're more likely to die on the way to the beach (in a traffic collision) than by dying in a shark attack. It's an odd saying, usually used to tamp down the innate fear many people have of swimming in large, deep bodies of water. Still, the fear of an improbable shark attack keeps a large portion of beach-goers (who survived the drive) out of the water. Their logic is solid: if you never go into the ocean, there is zero chance of being attacked by a shark. Problem solved, right? And if a child never rides a bike, there is zero chance they will be the victim in a bike crash. But what type of life would it be to never go in the ocean because of sharks, never go outside because of a potential lightning strike, or to never ride a bike because of cars?

Moreover, by "safely" confining our children within motor vehicles, we are fooling ourselves into a false sense of security. Over 40,000 Americans die in motor vehicle crashes each year, an additional 58,000 are killed by pollution directly caused by traffic emissions, hundreds of thousands of Americans die prematurely due to living a sedentary lifestyle, and unthinkable numbers will eventually perish due to the climate catastrophe, which is largely exacerbated by cars. But a separate tragedy is unfolding in parallel: our society is robbing children of the small joys in life by forbidding them to walk, ride, or scoot their way to and from school. Not every trip requires a car, and this lesson is best taught from a young age.

Call Brad Tucker if You Were Injured in a Colorado Bike Crash

Bike crash attorney Brad Tucker knows what it means to be a cyclist. He has been a bike commuter and bike racer for decades here in Colorado, and understands the trauma, anger, and fear that you are likely going through after being struck. We urge you to take action by calling Colorado Bike Law today at 303.694.9300 to schedule a free consultation.