Tips on bike and foot commuting to school

More kids are choosing to bike and walk to school in Bend

By Tara Bannow, The Bulletin, @tarabannow

The number of kids in Bend-La Pine Schools who bike to school in the mornings jumped more than 10 percent between 2012 and 2013 — the biggest increase yet in a single year.

That kind of statistic is a feather in Bendite Brian Potwin’s cap. Potwin has coordinated the district’s Safe Routes to School program for the past five years through his post as education coordinator for Commute Options, an organization that promotes alternatives for Central Oregonians to driving in cars.

“I’ve seen a shift in perceptions from parents around safety and the fun aspect of it,” he said. “I’ve seen an increased buy-in on the school district’s level and per school as well.”

Advocates of walking or biking to school say it’s a great way to ensure kids are getting at least some physical activity, especially at a time when physical education in schools continues to erode under the weight of budget cuts and shorter school years . The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, most of it moderate or vigorous aerobic activity. Depending on how far a child lives from school, walking or biking there may just satisfy the CDC’s guidelines.

But as attractive as the benefits may be, there are still significant barriers. Locally, the big ones are living too far from schools, inclement weather conditions and roads that don’t permit safe access to school by foot or bike, such as busy, arterial roads or those without sidewalks. Potwin’s group surveys parents on the subject and then uses the data to work with schools or the city to reduce the barriers, or with families to teach them about other options.

“If we’re talking about a specific situation with an entire school, we can educate them on that area,” he said.

A good example is the Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School (REALMS), which is near the Riverhouse at the intersection of Business 97 and NW Mt. Washington Drive. In that case, Potwin helps people navigate the busy intersection, which usually means redirecting them to the nearby Deschutes River Trail, which connects almost directly with the school.

“It’s not just the main travel lanes we all can go in by car,” he said. “Some of them are the more creative, fun, easy options.”

Safe Routes to Schools, a federal program with state and local chapters, has been active in Central Oregon for a decade. Since its inception, its leaders have worked with eight local elementary and middle schools to design safe routes to walk or bike to school. The process requires close coordination with the schools and involves designating a safe meeting point about a mile and a half from each school. Parents bring their kids to the safe point, and the kids then walk or bike to school in chaperoned groups of five to 20.

Volunteer chaperons — either parents or teachers from the schools — are essential to the model.

“It doesn’t work without an adult there,” Potwin said. “That’s part of what makes it safe and accessible.”

Potwin also goes into schools and teaches safe biking and walking habits, such as hand signals, traffic rules and wearing helmets.

For families considering allowing kids to bike or walk to school on their own, Potwin said the kids should be at least 10 years old to bike in the roadway. Younger kids don’t have fully developed depth perception, peripheral vision or comprehension of the speed of travel.

Kari Schlosshauer, regional policy manager for the Pacific Northwest for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, said 1 in 3 kids in the U.S. is overweight or obese, and the vast majority don’t get the recommended 60 minutes a day of physical activity.

“There’s obvious health concerns there,” she said. “Providing the safe routes and the encouragement and some of the educational pieces — especially with younger kids — putting those things in place within a school goes a huge way towards actually getting the kids to do it.”

In the end, encouraging and helping kids walk and bike to school ultimately benefits everyone in a community, Schlosshauer said.

“It’s really great to teach kids how to be good pedestrians and teach them how to ride bikes properly down the street because that benefits everyone if the kids know how to do those things,” she said, “and it makes everybody feel better about letting them go out and do that.”

Pedestrian safety for kids

• Ask a parent first.

• Use sidewalks or paths. If there are none, walk as far from the cars as possible on the side of the street facing traffic.

• Choose a route with the fewest streets to cross and avoid crossing busy or high-speed streets.

• Don’t cross behind or within 10 feet of the front of a bus or other large vehicle because the driver cannot see this area.

• Watch for parked cars that may be getting ready to back up or pull forward.

• Obey traffic signs and signals.

• When a signal indicates it is time to cross, check for motor vehicles. Drivers may not obey the rules and turning drivers may not look for pedestrians.

• Before crossing, always look for cars, even after a signal, crossing guard, parent or other adult says it is OK to cross.

• Walk, don’t run, across the street.

Bicycle safety for kids

Before riding to school, children must be able to:

• Ride in a straight line while scanning the situation ahead, behind and to the side.

• Stop quickly using the brakes without swerving, falling or crashing.

• Swerve in a controlled manner to avoid a hazard or collision.

• Follow the rules of the road.

Once they are ready to ride, they should follow these tips:

• Dress appropriately. Wear brightly colored, close-fitting clothing. Tie your shoes and secure long laces and loose pant legs. Do not wear headphones.

• Wear a properly fitted helmet.

• Ride a bicycle that fits. When seated on the bicycle, both feet should be firmly planted on the ground and hands should reach the handlebars.

• Ride a bicycle that is in good condition. Tires should be firm, brakes should prevent tires from rotating when pushed, the chain should not droop or be rusty and the seat and handlebars should be tight.

• Do not carry anyone else on the bicycle.

• Do not carry anything in your hands. Use a backpack, basket or panniers.

• Choose the route with the fewest streets to cross. Avoid busy and high-speed streets. Use bike paths where available.

• Before entering the street, look for other vehicles to the left, right, in front and behind.

• Watch for vehicles turning into or exiting driveways.

• Stop at all intersections and check for traffic before crossing. When possible, cross at locations where adult crossing guards are present. It may be best to dismount and walk your bicycle across large or busy intersections.

• Ride in a straight line with two hands on the handlebar unless signaling.

• Follow all traffic laws, including:

- If riding in the street, ride in the same direction as motor vehicles, on the right-hand side of the street, about 2 or 3 feet from the edge.

- Hand signal when turning or stopping, and obey traffic signs and signals.

- Check for traffic in front and behind before changing lanes, crossing intersections or turning.

- If riding on a sidewalk or path, ride slowly and be prepared to stop quickly.

• Biking in roundabouts: Children under age 10 should use the sidewalks rather than riding on the roadway and should ride with their parents or guardians. Older students can use the same travel lane as vehicles. •

Source: Safe Routes to School

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