Biking to school sparks a lifelong skill

If the bike racks in front of elementary, middle and secondary schools seem a little barren, it’s not your imagination.

Statistics Canada says bicycle use fell by more than 15% among 12- to 14-year-olds from 1994 to 2013, and almost 11% among 15- to 17-year-olds.

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Hub Cycling, an advocacy group that promotes cycling in Metro Vancouver, is hoping to change that and is organizing its seventh annual Bike to School Week, from May 27 to 31, to encourage kids to ride their bikes to school and for local districts to make it safer for them to do so.

“Ensuring that families know about the safest routes to school and new infrastructure being built in school areas is just one of the ways that schools and municipal staff are working together to make biking to school an attractive choice,” said Jel Kocmaruk, Hub's coordinator for Bike to School Week.

Five SD43 schools — Maillard and Maple Creek middle as well as Riverview Park, Birchland and Westwood elementary schools — are among about 120 across the Lower Mainland registered to participate, with various student activities like poster contests and bike rodeos, safety lessons and classroom units. There’s also a short video competition for students across the region.

But biking to school often begins with ensuring kids have the skills and confidence to do it, said Mike Chan of Pedalheads. The company was founded in 1995 in Vancouver to teach kids how to ride in a safe and fun environment and now operates in more than 75 locations in four provinces (two in Coquitlam) and five American states.

Chan said increased urbanization has made many parents reluctant to send their kids to school on two wheels.

“It’s a bit more of a danger,” he said. “The distances to school are challenging, there’s busy streets and roads to get there.”

Chan said identifying safe routes along quieter streets or designated bikeways can help but kids also need the skills to navigate traffic and be alert for hazards. Parents need assurance they’re up to the task.

“It’s about confidence,” he said. “Whether or not you feel your child can get safely from point A to point B.”

To gain that confidence, Chan said, kids should be able to pedal in a straight line for a minimum of 15 metres, hold a hand signal for three seconds and shoulder check without weaving. They should also be familiar with how to use the gears and brakes on their bike, and how to ride on various terrain, from pavement to gravel paths, as well as how to cross streets.

Chan said the hazards of the road are the same for every cyclist, whether they’re seven or 70 years old.

“There’s lots of dangers,” he said. “You want to be as confident as you can that they know the rules.”

But the sense of independence and accomplishment kids can get from riding to school is immeasurable, Chan said.

“You feel like you’ve gained a skill you’ll have for the rest of your life,” he said. “It’s getting outdoors and being active. It’s a cool thing to see.”

• Bike to School Week is being run in conjunction with Bike to Work Week, from May 27 to June 2, and Bike to Shop Days on June 1 and 2. For more information, go to www.bikehub.ca.

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