Let’s teach kids to bike safely, and also build safer roads!
Do you remember the first time you rode a bike? The first time wobbling down a hill without training wheels, or given a push by a parent running beside you? I remember the park hill, my dad’s push start, the momentary feeling of flying, and the tumble at the bottom (as I had no idea how to stop without training wheels to stabilize me). I was a little scraped up but eager to get up and give it another shot.
My two kids have learned to ride much earlier than me, thanks to a different method that teaches balance before pedaling. They started at age two on light and simple balance bikes, with no pedals or brakes. Balance bikes are much like the very first bicycle prototype, the 1817 “Laufmaschine” or “running machine”. Kids can be surprisingly fast at running and coasting, and they burn a lot of shoe rubber when they stop. Next, I found my son a bike with tiny 12” wheels and immediately removed the training wheels and pedals and lowered the seat so he could get used to the size and balance. Once he was comfortable, we added the pedals back on and spent time offering push starts, running beside him, and letting him get the feel of pedaling. Both my son and daughter were zipping around with the wind on their faces by age four.
Do you remember the feeling of freedom as a child on a bike? Did it allow you more independence in the years before learning to drive a car? I grew up in Jamaica Plain, Boston, and didn’t feel safe doing a lot of exploring on city streets until around age 14. But at a much younger age on summer vacation the bike allowed me to explore New Hampshire campgrounds with friends, and to ride with my siblings to swimming lessons, the park, and the library in the small town where my grandparents lived in Connecticut.
My kids are fortunate to have a lot of freedom to roll on the quiet streets of our neighborhood of Portsmouth. We bike or walk to Dondero Elementary, and sometimes after school will wander and then see if the youngest (a kindergartener) can lead us back home. Recently my 8 year old has biked solo to a few nearby friends’ houses, and it’s wonderful to see his smile and sense of accomplishment.
Is this sense of independence and fun worth the risk? American streets are incredibly dangerous, especially for those outside of our increasingly large cars. As much as we remind them to ride on the right, look for cars before crossing, and stop at stop signs, we know that children are bad at recognizing dangers, concentrate on just one thing at a time, and often act unpredictably. They don’t have the life experience to predict what drivers will do, and have up to a 30% narrower field of vision. Even on a sidewalk they may feel safe but not realize they aren’t visible to drivers coming out of driveways or making turns. To mitigate the risks, we need to take a very active role in teaching both drivers and young bike riders how to act on the road.
That’s why at Seacoast Area Bicycle Riders we were thrilled to be asked by the Portsmouth Recreation Department to help organize a kids Bike Rodeo to teach safety skills. It will be held on Saturday May 20th from 9:30 to 11:30 outside Little Harbor School and open to all. We will chalk out a bicycle skills course complete with intersections, stop and yield signs, crosswalks, and two way traffic. Before kids enter the course, volunteers will show them how to do their own bike safety checks, will test helmet fit, and will give out helmets to any who need them. We will also practice safe riding with very short rides in the neighborhood. Balance bikes, pedal bikes, and scooters are all welcome!
Adding to the excitement of the day, the Bike Rodeo will be followed at 11:30 by the Portsmouth Mayor’s Ride. It is a slow (and all ages) 9 mile group ride with elected officials and city staff to tour completed and upcoming bike improvements, including a trailhead for the NH Seacoast Greenway under construction right now. As much as we may do to teach safe driving and biking, many of our city streets really need physical changes to slow traffic and provide safer biking and walking. Coming out to events like these to talk to city leaders can help move the conversation forward.
Whatever age you are, I hope that this spring you can get outdoors and feel some of that same joy and freedom on a bike!
Matt Glenn is president of Seacoast Area Bicycle Riders, a nonprofit with a mission to make the Seacoast better for biking. To volunteer reach out to [email protected] or sign up at https://www.signupgenius.com/go/10C0945A4A723A3FCC43-may20