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Fighting For The Right To Bike To School

marino.jpg
by Brad Aaron

A couple of stories we've linked from headlines this week point to the continuation of a disturbing trend: families whose parents are questioned, criticized and even intimidated for encouraging their kids to bike or walk to school.

In Saratoga Springs, reports The Saratogian, controversy has erupted over the Marino family's desire to let son Adam ride his bike to Maple Avenue Middle School. Before the first day of classes last week, officials actually placed calls telling parents not to permit kids to bike or walk. The Marinos, regular bike riders, defied the "rule" -- school officials can't dictate how kids get to school any more than they can tell parents which make of car to drive. They were greeted outside by school personnel and a New York state trooper.

They were informed that they were "out of compliance," and had a lengthy discussion over where Adam’s bike could be locked.

"I was extremely bothered," Kaddo Marino said, "after reviewing the way we were met at the school. It was very intimidating to be met by these three men, one of whom was a trooper."

The Marinos aren't alone. A recent New York Times back-to-school piece profiles similar cases in which parents who permit their kids to walk and bike are met with raised eyebrows, or worse. One mother in Mississippi was threatened with a child endangerment charge for letting her 10-year-old walk a mile to soccer practice after passersby saw the boy and called 911. Another in Vancouver, British Columbia, was left waiting and worrying for her first grader after school officials prevented him from walking himself home -- a distance of six houses.

Issues of liability and fears of abductions are often raised to explain the resistance to a practice that was commonplace 40 years ago, when 41 percent of American kids walked or biked to school. But the facts, as cited by the Times, don't support the paranoia. While about 115 children are abducted by strangers each year, some 250,000 are injured in car crashes. Many parents get this, and some are wondering: If schools and districts are so obsessed with the responsibilities entailed by enabling students to bike or walk, why aren't they more concerned about having kids arrive in -- much less driving their own -- cars?

The most obvious answer: car culture. While some communities mentioned in these stories are, and should be, concerned over street safety (advocates in Saratoga Springs, for instance, are rallying around the Marinos), the response in most cases has not been to make improvements, but to castigate families who want their kids to navigate the world outside the confines of a motor vehicle. This reaction -- to escalate the simple act of a child riding a bike to the level of civil disobedience -- can only make sense in an environment where it's considered normal to shuttle the kids by car down the driveway to meet the school bus.

Related posts in the Worldchanging archive:
Seattle to the World: Feet First and Walkable Communities
Get Schooled in Livable Streets
The Ruins of the Unsustainable: Searching For Answers to the Suburbs

This piece originally appeared in Streetsblog NYC.

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Comments

Safety safety safety! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!


Posted by: Andy Lubershane on 18 Sep 09

Wow, that's absolutely insane. In New Zealand I like to think we're not quite that bad - certainly I was walking to and from school in the nineties from about the age of six and in the mid afternoon I still see school students walking and biking around with their friends or alone. It was a huge treat to get a ride to school in a car, right through high school, and even now that all five of us are over 21 none of us have cars (or full drivers licenses, for that matter) - we all either still bike, take the bus, or in one sister's case, drive a scooter. As children we also used to walk several blocks to various local parks by ourselves and were considered old enough to stay at home by ourselves for a while from about 13. Shockingly, we are all still alive and abduction-free.


Posted by: Kei on 18 Sep 09

Could I get a link or citation for the case you describe in Vancouver, B.C.? I live here and do research on the subject, so it'd be nice to know the resolution and outcomes.


Posted by: Karen Fung on 21 Sep 09

Hi Karen,

You can contact the author of this article through Streetsblog NYC


Posted by: Sarah on 21 Sep 09

Wow. When I worked at an elementary school of about six hundred students, my school dismissal duty was to walk with the "walkers" across the busy street to their neighborhood. But I put "walkers" in quotes... because there was only one walker. Out of six hundred kids. And there are neighborhoods and apartment complexes all within walking distance of the school...

Times are changing! But maybe not for the better. Maybe if more schools had a staff member to walk part or all of the way with the kids, parents (and apparently troopers) would feel more comfortable with having kids walk or bike.

PS -- I got that dismissal duty because the staff member originally picked for the job was too out of shape to walk the quarter mile up the hill and across the street with the kids... Does that tell you anything about how much we've changed?


Posted by: K Singer on 23 Sep 09

"think of the children, THINK OF THE CHILDREN!"
How often do kids get abducted?? stupid scared shitless adults trying to protect the Children from people who don't even exist. Let them do what they want.

I find it funny how we'll sit in a car and drive at 100 km/h but we won't touch a harmless spider.


Posted by: Joe on 1 Mar 10

If the only route to school was along a major road, then I can see the school taking issue with a small child biking alone, but accompanied by his mother? It's absurd. I biked to school as soon as I was fit enough to make it the whole way easily, and in later years, along the main road, because that was the only way to get there. This was from 1999-2004, I'm no old-timer. I had one near miss with a motorcycle that I didn't see coming (my fault), and that made me a better biker. This idea that kids need to be coddled and protected from the unimaginable danger of falling out of a tree or biking to school is absurd.

Of course the fact that you can get sued if your child's friend falls and breaks their arm in your yard does a lot to encourage this over-protectiveness, by both parents and schools. The fear of litigation made my middle school principal ban all the most fun games on the playground. He banned the little commune of "forts" developed in the woods because of some hypothetical poison ivy (we never saw any, and we knew what it looked like), he banned sledding on the small hill behind the school, he closed half of the playground down.

I think both Canada and the US need to fix our court systems to prevent such idiocy, and then reeducate parents.


Posted by: Aeiluindae on 1 Mar 10

Our local elementary has the policy that kinders and first graders have to be walked with older siblings or parents (we live two houses from the school, and when my oldest was ill, I would have to walk to school. A silly rule.) Thankfully, there are many children in our neighborhood who walk and ride to school still, as well as many parents who walk to school, so we continue to have a lot of foot traffic around our school.

But other neighborhoods aren't so lucky. I've read posts from other moms who declare that "no 12 year old is responsible enough or safe enough to walk to school". In my mind, that is just crazy. In Oregon, at 12, they are old enough to babysit, but some adults feel they aren't safe enough to walk home? Wow.


Posted by: Wendi on 2 Mar 10

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