Why and How to Bike to School with Kids

active transportation

About a year and a half ago, I was excited that my daughter got a spot in our catchment-area French Immersion school (the previous year it had been a lottery system for admission due to high demand). I eagerly attended the info night with her only to be severely let down when a large part of the evening was devoted to how and where it was acceptable to drop off your child… by car. There was no encouragement to walk or bike, at least nothing that was memorable. I left the space feeling a bit numb about the journey we were about to embark on for the next 16 years (between my eldest and youngest). As a teacher, it further disheartened me that the place of education for our future generation was not promoting a better solution. Heck, they should have been marketing it hard!

active transportation
My then preschooler commuting home from the neighbourhood preschool on her Strider in winter.

Resolutions

That night I resolved to never drive the kids to school. Never say never, as I’m sure there will be the odd time where it just makes sense, but most of the time it will absolutely make more sense for me to walk or bike. And there are heaps of reasons why, aside from the awful traffic jammed image that was conjured up in my head during that info session.

Perceived danger

Read this. Most of the Canadian parents reading this piece will remember Hal and Joanne of ParticiPACTION days: If Hal & Joanne are telling you to do it, then DO IT! Their article does an excellent job of interpreting statistics and perceived risk. We are so numb to the risks we take every time we get in a car and we have blown out of proportion how risky it is to ride a bike, all the while thinking that walking is our safest bet. Well, cliff notes from the article: they’re all a little bit risky, with your chance of death (expressed as a percentage of deaths per million trips in 2014 in BC) as being:

  • 0.00096% in a car,
  • 0.00138% on a bike, or
  • 0.00147% on foot.

So, how does this help my argument for riding? These risks are all <0.002%. They could be lower with forward-thinking road design and infrastructure as promoted by VisionZERO. And, I hope they get there. But, really, for your average person’s grasp of numbers, these stats are kinda in the realm of “shit happens”. However, the article goes on to point out the statistically significant health risks of the effects of sitting on your butt while driving a car (eg. obesity, heart disease, etc.), while pointing out the benefits of biking or walking. This article goes on to say that active transportation is known to help 25 chronic conditions that Canadians are facing.

Money

For us, the drive to school is 2.5 km, one way. To do a simple drop off & pick up entails two round trips per school day, of which there are 183 this coming school year. Using the federal government rate for travel of $0.54/km, this is how much it costs me to drive my kid to school: 2.5 km x 4 x 183 days x $0.54/km = $988.20/school year. This does not include idling like many parents do in the winter and it assumes that I will find a parking spot right out front of the school, not wasting time driving around finding one.

Energy

It’s a challenge to squeeze in proper, heart-raising exercise with two young kids. I spend a lot of time outside (bonus), but six years in it is still often at a toddling pace. This is where biking is a lifesaver for me. Instead of spending 91.5 hrs on my butt in my car this year, I will spend 200+ hours riding, walking, or jogging back and forth to school. Great for me! Awesome for my big kid who will be mostly riding under her own steam, helping her to get her daily recommended exercise. Amazing modeling for my three year old.

Yes, it takes me 15+ minutes to zip over to the school (a little longer with my big kid riding), but in reality that is only about 5 minutes extra than most driving trips there due to timing of lights and traffic. And, I don’t have to warm up the car in the winter.

And, remember: Hal & Joanne, plus all those nice docs over at CAPE.

Our commute

Fast forward a year-and-a-half and we are starting at said school for real this time. (We had a little interlude with Common Digs’ Nature Kindergarten program for 2016-17.) My soon-to-be Gr. 1er is now on a geared bike, so she can ride the entire hilly route without a push! She also has the option to hop-on to one of our cargo bikes, which I will be riding with her little sister as passenger.

I’m diving into this journey of formal education for my kids with a fresh attitude and thought I’d try to market active transportation, myself, instead of relying on the school!

We have a great route to school with the only awful and dangerous intersection being right near our house and we have implemented a strict “you must wait for a car to stop for you” policy here due to a blind corner, jersey barriers promoting high speeds, and the end of a playground zone right before the intersection (so people are speeding up instead of slowing down). Otherwise, we are on pathways almost the entire way. We have to cross one major artery but there is a(n albeit awkwardly placed) hand-activated flashing signal for crossing. And, the last couple of blocks to school are on a quiet residential street (with the option to ride on the sidewalk, if preferred).

Here are my three ideas for having an enjoyable commute to school with your kid(s):

  1. Plan your route
  2. Do a practice run
  3. Form a bike gang!

Plan your route

Being prepared will help make you feel confident as well as taking the time to find the route with the best infrastructure, because infrastructure is your best bet for a pleasant and safe riding experience, especially for kids! Here’s a handy hand-out on route-planning basics, from HUB Cycling. Using those ideas and maybe poking around exploring your neighbourhood yourself, along with GoogleMaps, and you’ll be good to go.

GoogleMaps has biking info for many regions, including Calgary, and it is pretty good at helping to plan a good biking route, using your city’s bike data, maximizing pathways, cycle tracks, and designated on road bike routes, etc. It’s simple to “turn on” this information in GoogleMaps, on your desktop or in the mobile app:

  1. Go to maps.google.ca or open your GoogleMap app.
  2. Desktop: In the top left of your screen, you’ll see three horizontal bars, click on them and a bigger menu will open up.
    App: On the right of your screen you’ll see a little white circle with some diamonds indicating “layers”. Click on it.
  3. Select “Bicycling”. You will notice a lot more detail in your maps now, solid green and brown lines, dotted lines, etc. There’s a legend at the bottom of the map screen.
  4. Use directions like normal, but select the bicycle instead of the car.

There’s also a website that collects data on cyclist safety and maps it. Check it out if you are new to cycling in your neighbourhood and are unaware of trouble spots. I’ve honestly never used it, but just took a gander of it and am aware of many of the spots in my neighbourhood due to the #yycbike hashtag on Twitter or personal experience even walking.

Do a practice run

This will help you to figure out your timing for the morning rush. You might even be surprised about how it probably only takes you a couple of extra minutes, compared to driving. And, it’s faster than walking – it’s always nice to save time in the morning!

Form a bike gang

Pick up kids along your route, if possible, and you can all ride together. Kids love having other buddies who bike! It validates what they’re doing and it’s just fun.

And, well, helmets. Your choice, but I’m pretty sure it’s the law in every jurisdiction in Canada for minors. Make sure it fits and is worn properly or it can cause more harm than good. We prefer smooth helmets (akin to the shape of a skull) with good flat coverage on the forehead, temple area, and at the back of the head (occipital bone area), including behind the ears. We’ve found these traits in kid helmets by Giro (like the Scamp) and Bern. Any other favourites that fit this bill? I’d love to read about them in the comments, below.

If you need help figuring out what your options are for carrying kids that are too small to ride on their own, yet, check out my blog posts on biking with babies: Part 1 (Babies) and Part 2 (Toddlers).

Happy trails!

3 Replies to “Why and How to Bike to School with Kids”

  1. All good advice. Though you’ve assumed that parents driving kids to school are going back home afterwards. We ride as often as we can, but on days I need to get to work on time (impossible by bike or bus unless I pay for more childcare and haul my child out of bed ridiculously early) I drop our son off on my way, and my husband picks him up coming home. Total extra mileage is about one kilometre. Plus: idle? No. Drive around looking for parking? No. I grab a spot a block away. It’s not perfect, but please don’t assume that those of us driving haven’t thought about how we do it.

    1. Thanks, Calgarymom. My apologies for getting the tone a bit off; I wasn’t trying to imply that ALL those who are driving haven’t thought about how you do it: clearly you have. My bad. In my defence, I was not attempting to explore all sides of the issue, this piece is a bit of a marketing ploy trying to strong arm people into a paradigm shift away from ‘driving is always the best choice’. I acknowledged that driving does make sense in some instances (in that I have set myself the goal to not drive but, even for full-time parent me, it will be more efficient and plausible to drive some times). This is supposed to be a bit of a “ra ra, you can do it” marketing piece of an idea that is far-out for many people (clearly not you though) and marketing is often biased. I’m stoked to read that you are riding on the days it does work. Please keep doing you!

      For transparency’s sake, I likely will not be doing two round trips every day as the plan is that my husband will take our eldest to school in the mornings (at least on Tuesday/Thursday), by bike, on his way to work downtown. It is a slight detour for him but since we live in an older part of Calgary, there are elementary schools aplenty and it will only add about 10-20 minutes to his morning commute (and he is fortunate to have a job where he does not have to clock in at an exact time).

      I would argue that there is a lot of structural violence in place in our North American society hindering an active lifestyle, from road design to work-life balance and all of the nuances that entails, no doubt. I would also argue that some times we need to push ourselves beyond the norm to effect change, at least at a personal level, and it is awesome that you are doing that as much as works for your family. Kind regards, Lindsay

  2. […] One of the best ways to help your kids be healthier is to be active with them. And one of the easiest ways for anyone to get more active is to weave activity into everyday activities like, say, biking to school. It’s well established that kids who walk, run, ride, or roll to school arrive more refreshed and ready to learn, and that translates to improved performance. It’s also well-established that kids of parents who engage with them in activities are more likely to be active on their own and develop a more active lifestyle. With all that in mind, if you’re interested in learning how to gear up for that school journey with your kids by bike this article provides some great tips. Read more here. […]

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