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No Winners in Tennessee School Bike Ride Case – Could Get Worse Still

Last week we got a call from the mother of the Tennessee child who was told “not to ride her bike to school”; the story is lighting up the blogosphere as we speak. We listened, offered some advice, encouraged her to contact her statewide advocacy group, BikeWalk Tennessee, and gave the police department in Elizabethton a call to get their side of the story. What emerges is a frustrating story with no obvious winners and lots of people left feeling aggrieved. The basic principle that it really should be (and probably is in this case) perfectly reasonable for a capable 10-year old to ride her bike to school on local streets is in danger of getting lost.

The student trying to get to school really doesn’t have a lot of options to riding the mile from home to school on the road – her neighborhood has no sidewalks; there aren’t any alternate routes; her mother can’t drive her; the police didn’t really help her with a solution; the school bus isn’t an option. Besides, riding is a good option – it’s quicker and healthier; the streets are pretty quiet; many ten-year olds are quite capable of riding in that environment; and her mom shouldn’t have to drive her (assuming she could)! The fact that she may not have been riding with all the traffic skills of a seasoned commuter cyclist speaks perhaps to the need for decent bike education in school, slightly more patient parents who are driving their kids to school, and – of course – a few more fellow riders and walkers out there with her who can easily access the school on foot and bike.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this case highlights the need for the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Program currently under threat of Congressional budget cuts. The SRTS program has enabled local communities to access badly needed funds to help build sidewalks and trails to schools; to add bike lanes, signs and markings on roads around schools; to deliver critical bicycling and traffic safety education to students; to support bike trains and walking school buses; and even to begin to tackle bigger issues of school siting and access. Clearly these things are not happening without the impetus of the SRTS program and it would be a huge mistake if Congress were to approve a transportation bill without this critical initiative.

If Congress does decide to axe the program, we can anticipate a lot more cases like we are seeing in Tennessee – we can’t afford school buses because of local budget cuts; we aren’t providing education and encouragement programs to teach kids traffic safety skills; we keep putting our schools in the wrong places where people can’t walk and bike easily to them; we don’t provide sidewalks, crosswalks, lanes, trails and other safe facilities to get them to school; and then we wonder why more and more increasingly overweight and irritable kids are being driven to school [by increasingly overweight and irritable parents] adding to the danger for kids who can’t be driven…and the police and school administrators are left to sort out the mess with their own preconceived notions of what’s “safe” and “normal” behavior that doesn’t seem to include hopping on a bike and riding for kids who are generally quite capable of doing so.

To speak up for Safe Routes to School, contact your members of Congress and ask them to support the program by signing on to this bill. You can also sign up to the advocacy center for alerts on the larger transportation bill – we are expecting to see some action on this when Congress returns next week and we are going to need all the help we can get to preserve dedicated funding for bicycling and walking programs.


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