Red light, green light

Some Southwest schools embrace bike riding; others ban it for ‘safety reasons’

Lake Harriet Community School 4th-grade teacher Derek Carlson, who bikes to school every day even amid snow and ice, hopes that bike safety will soon be incorporated into the school’s physical education curriculum. While his school embraces bikes, this isn’t the case in all Southwest schools.

Carlson teaches workshops about bike care after school. Kids bring their own bikes for tune-ups, or Carlson will connect them with a used, refurbished bike for free.

The teacher and bike enthusiast helped organize a Bike to School Day on Oct. 10. All students at both the Upper and Lower campuses, at 4912 Vincent Ave. S. and 4030 Chowen Ave. S., were encouraged to bike to school. Parents chaperoned kids who are still too young to make the trip solo. He taught kids about bike safety and then accompanied 4th and 5th graders on a bike journey around Lake Harriet.

That day, bike racks overflowed with 300-400 bikes, up from the usual 75-100 on most warm days.

Other campuses in Southwest, however, ban bikes, citing safety risks, security issues, liability fears or – where students aren’t drawn from the immediate neighborhood – the distances cyclists would have to travel.

In some cases, distinctions are made by grade level, while other schools don’t have a written policy regarding bikes.

Furthermore, there’s no overriding district philosophy regarding biking to school, according to Rob Anderson, transportation manager for Minneapolis Public Schools. Anderson works with schools to provide lessons about bus safety but doesn’t cover biking dos and don’ts.

Allen Giles, general counsel to Minneapolis Public Schools, said that the issue has never come up at the district’s central office. Individual schools are left to make the call.

Southwest resident Lynnell Mickelson, whose kids attend Lake Harriet Upper Campus and Southwest High School, 3414 W. 47th St., said on a public parent online forum, “As a parent, I think I should be the person to decide whether biking to school is safe or not. I don’t think it should be up to the school.”

She and other parents say the physical, environmental and economic benefits of riding bikes to school abound. It also gives kids flexibility to participate in afterschool activities without having to rely on bus schedules.

Mickelson lives within a mile of both schools, so her kids aren’t eligible for bus service. Her sons, however, began biking to school in the 3rd grade, even when they could have ridden the bus because it was faster and seemed like less hassle, she said.

“There are plenty of disadvantages of a neighborhood school in my part of the city – namely the lack of diversity,” she said. “But one of the pleasures is standing in front of Lake Harriet on a nice fall or spring day and seeing this ocean of bikes and walkers coming from all directions – literally hundreds and hundreds of kids walking or biking to school. It’s beautiful. It feels very old-fashioned and small-town. It’s the way life should be.”

Policies vary widely

Burroughs Elementary School Principal Tim Cadotte said that about 50 kids regularly bike during the fall and spring (some also ride scooters) to the school at 1601 W. 50th St.

This year, Burroughs hosted its first annual Week on Wheels in October. That day, almost all students brought their bikes to school and parked them in the gym. During physical education classes, they had just enough time to bike around Lake Harriet.

“It was really an exciting event,” Cadotte said. “Our whole philosophy is to use the neighborhood. We welcome bikes here.”

Burroughs is a community school, and many students live nearby. There are also plenty of easy-to-navigate trails in the area.

At Lyndale Community School, 312 W. 34th St., students are allowed to ride their bikes, but the bike racks were removed because of recent vandalism.

Although bikes are allowed at Anthony Middle School, 5757 Irving Ave. S., only 25-30 kids ride to school in the fall and spring. Principal Jackie Hanson said that she doesn’t encourage or discourage bikes.

Southwest High School, at 3414 W. 47th St., doesn’t have a written policy about riding bikes to school. Principal Bill Smith said that the school simply instructs kids to treat bikes and safety with common sense. A bike rack is provided.

No bikes, however, are allowed at Armatage Community School, 2501 W. 56th St. or Kenny Community School, 5720 Emerson Ave. S. because of “safety reasons.” Principal Joan Franks said that they don’t want to risk anyone getting hurt. Plus, there’s no place for kids to stow bikes.

“If [bikes are] damaged or stolen, there’s no one to be responsible,” she said.

Likewise, kids don’t typically ride bikes or walk to Parkview Montessori or Bryn Mawr Community School, both at 252 Upton Ave. S., because most students come from outside the immediate neighborhood.

The same goes for Kenwood Community School, 5720 Emerson Ave. S. Principal Susan Craig said that the school doesn’t encourage biking because so many kids live too far away.

At Whittier International Elementary School, 315 W. 26th St., the student handbook clearly states that bikes should be left at home since they could be lost, stolen or cause a disruption.

Safety is a big issue because the school is located on a busy street, said Principal Armando Camacho. No bike storage is available.

Camacho said that biking has rarely been an issue and that the majority of Whittier parents don’t approve of kids riding bikes to school, especially in kindergarten to 5th grade. All in all, “We’ve rarely had to deal with it. This is a nonissue in Whittier,” he said.

Finding safe ways to bike

At Barton Open School, 4237 Colfax Ave. S., where bike riders need to be in 3rd grade or above to bike alone, the main safety concern is that kids wear a helmet.

Parent Amanda Efron just helped the school acquire new bike racks to replace the old rusty ones, thanks to a city initiative that supplies bike racks for free to schools.

One problem with the previous rack was that it was too narrowly slotted for the frames and tires of mountain bikes, which kids commonly ride.

Efron escorts her kids by bike in the mornings. Her husband also bikes to work Downtown daily, even when it’s cold. She enjoys the morning bike ride because, “It’s such a peaceful way of starting and ending the day. If parents do it with their kids, they get to connect with them and observe them. There’s an added fitness benefit, too.”

Parent David Curle agreed. He lives three doors down from Barton and his kids walk to school, “We need to make sure that we’re teaching the whole child, not just the mental but also the physical. It’s good for the city, too, because it gets people out of their cars.”

Curle, who still owns his purple Schwinn Varsity bike from childhood (it was recovered after being stolen, thanks to a “bike safety day”), said encouraging biking could resolve the daily traffic jam in front of Barton’s entrance.

Likewise, local child health researcher Gerry Werth suggested that schools could use “bike rodeos” to teach bike safety and unofficially license kids to bike to school.

At bike rodeos, Minneapolis Park Police officers set up an obstacle course with lights. Kids are instructed to follow the traffic and use hand signals. Officers also show kids how to maintain their bikes. At the end, participants get free helmets.

Werth said that 90 percent of kids ride the bus to school. In an era of obesity in kids and cutbacks in physical education, he added, biking should be embraced as a way to promote physical exercise as part of the school day.

He said that a movement toward bike riding and walking to school could start with a “bike bus/train,” where parents accompany kids on bikes and on foot to school – collecting more and more students and adults as they near the school.

Such a “walking school bus” is used at a St. Paul Gifted and Talented magnet school. It also promotes more eyes on the street.

Werth said it’s hard to understand why so few students bike to school. “Minneapolis is the most bike-friendly city I’ve ever lived in. Elsewhere, it’s not as easy to ride around,” he said.

He said that research shows that more biking to school often means higher property values. Moreover, he said, “Property values go down with school closures. That shows what’s missing in the picture.”