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Socially distanced Safe Routes to School

Charlie Denney of Potomac & Chesapeake Cycling, contributed the following blog post. 

The start of the 2020-21 school year has arrived and has provided a varied and different experience for most students, and their families. The previous school year was one like no other. The onset of the covid-19 pandemic led to remote learning for the majority of students, which resulted in logistical and technical difficulties for families plus challenges finding ways to stay active and get outside, as well. 

As has been widely reported, people across the United States and around the world found an outlet through bicycling. Old bikes emerged from garages as it was easy to socially distance on bikes. Kids and their parents became more comfortable as there was less traffic on the roads in March and April, and across the country groups of kids, often siblings, began to venture out beyond their neighborhoods, discovering the joy and freedom of biking. 

A friend of mine observed how at first these groups these groups seemed somewhat cautious and tentative, but as spring turned to summer, they gained confidence and started to explore a multitude of places they could go on their bikes. A generation of kids now views bikes as freedom machines, their escape for much of the drudgery of the pandemic. If we can capture and sustain those feelings for this generation that would have huge, positive impact on the transportation choices these kids make as they get older.

Start by finding ways to include biking in your family’s daily routine. I have a friend who has her kids ride their bikes “to school” in the morning and “back from school” in the afternoon and another family with a kindergartener is riding with their child to his school campus every morning, so that he has some actual connection to his school as he starts his education virtually.  These are just two creative and easy examples of families finding ways to make biking part of their children’s daily routines. But also keep in mind that for kids of any age a random, unplanned bike ride that involves a stop for ice cream or some other treat reinforces the fun and practicality of going places on a bike for impressionable youngsters.

School districts are also beginning to see biking as a solution to challenges they are confronting during the pandemic. School transportation departments, in an effort to address social distancing on school buses, are looking to biking as an option. Ahead of opening schools, some districts are providing routing information, working to identify barriers to kids biking to school, and encouraging families to try routes before school opens and traffic increases. Some jurisdictions are building on efforts like slow streets and repurposing travel and parking lanes. 

Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs are also stepping up and quickly adjusting to the new and changing landscape. Keeping kids active during virtual learning has proven difficult.  Physical education and SRTS leaders have realized that biking and walking can go a long way to addressing inactivity. The creative, meaningful and fun programs that these leaders across the country have developed in response to school closures are impossible to adequately highlight in this posting. Fortunately, there are great resources like the Safe Routes Partnership, which has a section of its website devoted to covid-19 resources, including a Back to School 2020 Guide. Metro, the regional planning agency for the Portland, OR, metropolitan area, developed a guide over the summer to assist school districts identify and plan programs.

Traffic gardens, usually permanent small scale “villages” with streets, traffic controls, and sometimes small buildings where children on bikes and scooters can learn about traffic safety while having fun, are another great resource for families and schools. During the pandemic, people have noticed large expanses of asphalt that are at least temporarily dormant. These make excellent spots for “Pop Up Traffic Garden”, a concept championed by Fionnuala Quinn from Discover Traffic Gardens (photo at left), that uses easy to find materials to convert these dormant spaces into active, safe places where kids can have fun and learn the basics of traffic safety. Resources and how-to information can be found here and include cut-out materials so that kids can design their own layouts.

A delightful aspect of these pop ups is that they can take many forms and be “built” by anyone. From a group of neighbors on a cul de sac in Prince William County, VA to Physical Education teachers in Portland, OR, to a school bus driver team in Boulder, CO, all it takes is a little imagination and a willingness to make it happen.

As this pandemic grinds on, biking has continued to be a blessing, a relief, an escape and overall a positive thing. For children, these seven months are now a significant portion of their young lives and is now beginning to feel like their “normal”. As parents, neighbors, school employees and administrators, and advocates, let’s all commit to keeping the biking aspect of this new normal going for kids and all of us.  If we can, perhaps as this generation of kids reaches driving age, they will look back on these times fondly, remembering the freedom they discovered on their bikes and making biking the go-to option for transportation as they get older.