Experts are training children in the laws of the road to combat Memphis' car-centric culture and promote bicycle riding.
Marilyn Livesay and her third grade son have walked home from Downtown Elementary to their nearby home since he was in prekindergarten.
This year, after an influx of over 200 additional students, the school changed their pick-up policy to a car-only route for all students who do not go to aftercare or ride a bus or day-care van.
Livesay finds this policy concerning. She rode her bike through the car pick-up line for two days until she says she was told the principal would no longer allow it.
Revolutions Bicycle Co-op, which operates out of First Congregational Church in Midtown, is addressing Memphis’ car culture by working with Shelby County Schools to offer a bicycle safety program for all fourth graders at several schools during physical education classes.
The extensive on-the-bicycle lessons offered by Revolutions’ bicycle safety program are designed to increase bicycle ridership, physical activity and safe and predictable riding among youth.
Children park their bikes outside of Peabody Elementary School.
“Revolutions is a vital contributor to moving Memphis’ bicycling movement forward and (Shelby County Schools) aims to take advantage of that expertise to educate our children in a transportation activity that is fun, safe, and healthy,” said Revolutions executive director Sylvia Stern Crum.
In spring 2015, Revolutions worked with Peabody Elementary School in an after-school bicycle club called bicycle ambassadors. For the duration of the semester, they taught children in third through fifth grade how to use a bicycle as an active form of transportation to their school.
Livesay and Crum want to initiate a similar program at Downtown Elementary, which is in a densely urban area that lends itself to pedestrian traffic.
“As for Downtown Elementary School, they are right in the middle of the Downtown area. They are the elementary school offering and they have the opportunity to demonstrate how useful a bicycle can be for traveling to interesting and civically important places such as the National Civil Rights Institute, the Cossitt Library and the Harahan Bridge, to name just a few,” said Crum, adding that the school’s proximity to several Memphis Area Transit Authority stops makes it a model school for multi-modal transportation.
Children between the ages of 10 and 14 have the highest rate of bicycle crashes for all age groups. Since youth are usually at fault, Crum believes a majority of crashes can be avoided through education.
Students in the bicycle safety program learn the traffic rules and regulations, the potential hazards and the skills needed to cycle effectively, appropriately and safely through the city.
The bicycle ambassadors outside of Revolutions Bicycle Co-op's home base.
Revolutions believes their bicycle ambassadors program and the related 4th grade bicycle safety program could be a solution to the ever-growing car lines at local schools. Crum says that at the beginning of the semester, two of the bicycle ambassadors could not even ride a bicycle and three of their adult volunteers had kindergartners and a 1st grader who also couldn’t ride.
“By the end of the semester, all five of these children were now riding like pros, and the rest of the Bicycle Ambassadors had a good understanding of how to ride safely and confidently in the street,” she said.
The curriculum is specifically designed to meet Shelby County Schools’ health and physical education benchmarks. At a time when obesity amongst children and adults has reached epidemic proportions, bicycling is a way to meet daily physical activity needs, said Nicholas Oyler, City of Memphis bikeway and Pedestrian program manager.
“As local policies and decisions have reduced walking and biking as viable and safe travel options for children, these young citizens have become more and more dependent on their parents to tote them to school and have lost one of life’s earliest opportunities to practice personal independence,” he added.
Data published by the national Center for Safe Routes to School indicates that children don’t travel to school like they used to and the statistics for transportation used for trips of less than one mile are even more telling.
“How can we expect to build sustainable, physically-active communities if our children are subliminally learning that walking or biking for transportation is abnormal behavior?”
In 1969, 88 percent of American children would take a mile-long trip to school on foot, and seven percent rode in a car with five percent taking the bus. In 2009, only 35 percent walked that distance to school while 41 percent took a car and 20 percent boarded the school bus.
“The reasons for these changes are numerous and vary from perceptions of public safety and one-sided school policies to inadequate infrastructure and shortsighted urban planning,” said Oyler.
“The consequences are just as wide ranging. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that during this decline of physically active transportation to school, childhood obesity has increased.”
Biking and walking are solutions for the many Memphians who do not have reliable transportation. Nearly 25 percent of Memphis families do not own a car, Crum said. She added that most children in Memphis are within a half mile from their schools making it a viable distance to ride to school therefore reducing traffic and environmental impacts.
The bicycle ambassadors cross Poplar Avenue on a group ride.
Oyler, a native Memphian who rode his bike to Houston High School says that as a father and a professional urban planner, he feels called to act.
“How can we expect to build sustainable, physically-active communities if our children are subliminally learning that walking or biking for transportation is abnormal behavior?” Oyler said.
“In the long run, communities will need to reconsider the criteria they use when siting new schools and planning neighborhoods,” he said. “For example, perhaps undeveloped suburban land is the cheapest option for a community’s new school, but how many students would actually be within walking distance? Is that land located on a multilane thoroughfare with car traffic moving at 45 miles per hour?”
He indicates short-term solutions as well. Although he understands schools’ concerns about liability, he hopes they can find compromises in their policies to allow children to walk and bike to school.
He holds that schools should discontinue policies that prioritize driving or riding in a car to school and replace those policies with ones the reward walking and biking. Instead of handing out parking passes to high school seniors, for example, Oyler’s alternative is to charge for the passes and provide incentives for walking and biking.
Crum says the perception of safety and time commitment is a big obstacle. Crum indicts car-culture for the belief that it is a faster and safer way to travel. However, she points out that for short trips, especially with the congestion of drop-off and pick-up times, a bicycle can in fact be the faster, easier and safer option.
“When children and families can cross out of their own neighborhoods and into others around Memphis, we have a chance to interact with each other and create a stronger community,” Crum said.