You know the joy of exploring and seeing the city from the saddle of your bike. It brings back memories of when you were a kid and finally had the chance to discover new areas without close adult supervision. Riding to school, riding with friends to a store or someplace to eat, or exploring new areas like Minnehaha Creek or the Mississippi River.
Pass on that excitement to kids you know. I’ve seen more and more kids out riding with adults this summer and I think it’s great. If biking is going to be an integral part of the transportation system we need more kids on bikes experiencing the fun of biking and learning how to safely use a bike for transportation. Kids on bikes should not be seen as a nuisance on trails or streets. They’re learning to be operators of vehicles. The League of American Bicyclists states it very succinctly: “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as operators of vehicles.” Adults need to take the lead in passing on the skills and knowledge required to be safe bicyclists. It’s no different than teaching someone the rules, etiquette, and skills of tennis, baseball or lacrosse.
I’m lucky enough to have grandkids and they’re getting to the stage where they can comfortably ride five to 15 miles. Their parents enjoy a lot of activities with the kids, but don’t always have time to do everything, so I offered to ride with the older kids a couple times a month. I’ve had a great time and I think the kids have too. They’re always willing to go again. We’ve gone to museums, the University, where I work and we stop for something to eat at least once on each ride.
While riding, the kids and I ride in the streets as well as on bike trails. The quiet residential streets are a great place to show how to properly ride with traffic, how to signal turns and stops, how to watch for unexpected hazards and how to avoid what could be dangerous situations such as driveways or parking lots. The kids get to decide whether they want to ride in the street or on the sidewalk, but I let them know what to watch for and their responsibilities wherever they’re riding.
On the bike trails, I often ride behind the kids so I can watch their riding skills and their awareness of what’s going on around them. In just a few rides, their skills are noticeably improved. The bike trails provide a less complex environment for young riders and during low use times, the trails provide a more controlled setting for skill building.
There are some things to keep in mind when riding with or around kids. Obviously, kids have a different visual perspective. Their height limits what they can see and it reduces their visibility to drivers. To get an idea of what a child sees, sit on the curb or crouch down on a sidewalk where there are parked cars and see how your field of vision is altered.
Kids also are more easily distracted and their peripheral vision is not well developed. How often as adults have we avoided a serious incident because we “saw something out of the corner of our eye?”
Safe riding requires cyclists to be aware of their immediate surroundings and also what is ahead and behind them. The grandkids see me scanning ahead and behind. They see me signal. They hear me announce a turn or stop ahead of time so they can plan for it. The conversation helps keeps them focused while riding.
Children’s experience is limited. Kids don’t know traffic laws and don’t know what a driver may do or the limitations facing drivers. When adults see a moving vehicle, they can quickly gauge whether this is a threat because of years of experience as a pedestrian or as a driver.
When we cross streets, I’m very patient waiting for the right time and place to cross. I’ll verbalize about what I see on the street and when a good time to cross is coming up. I also let them know how to set up their bike so when they cross, they can do it safely and efficiently.
The bottom line for me is that the kids have fun and are safe. The skills they’re learning are making them better vehicle operators already. If you have the opportunity to ride with kids, just do it.
Dan Breva is the manager of the Freewheel Midtown Bike Center at the Midtown Exchange. He has bike commuted for more than 10 years.