After school, a spin around the lake

Lake Harriet teacher passes on love of biking

FULTON — On a warm spring afternoon, the bicycle racks outside the upper campus of Lake Harriet Community School are crammed with scores of child-size bicycles.

The afternoon bell rings and students rush out to claim their rides — except for about 20 students who wait in the school’s lobby for third-grade teacher Derek Carlson. It’s Tuesday afternoon, so that means it’s time for another meeting of the Lake Harriet Bike Club.

When they head out to the bike racks a few minutes later, a couple of dads are waiting on their bicycles. With everyone in helmets, it’s time to take off.

“All right bike club, get your bikes facing this way,” Carlson instructs, pointing north to Lake Harriet.

Carlson has led weekly rides around Lake Harriet in the fall and spring for about four years. For the life-long cyclist, it’s a way to pass on the sense of fun and freedom he felt as a young rider.

While bicycle proponents might tout the personal fitness or environmental benefits of riding over driving, Carlson has no such agenda for the Lake Harriet Bike Club.

“The bottom line is it’s fun,” he said. “It’s fun to ride your bike to school, and it’s fun to ride with friends.”

“The rest is good, but I don’t think there’s any kid here who rides their bike because it’s saving the environment,” he added.

Maybe not, although the regular stop at the Lake Harriet Bandstand — where students spend their pocket change on popcorn and soda — might have something to do with the club’s appeal.

For student Ivy Flummer, the best part of bike club was riding with her friends, and also spending some time outside.

“It feels good when you’re riding,” Flummer said.

Changing attitudes

In a district where not all schools allow students to ride bicycles to school, Lake Harriet’s upper campus stands out. At the same time, more schools are trying to foster the type of cycling culture found at Lake Harriet.

The decision to allow students to ride bicycles is left up to individual schools, Julie Danzl, coordinator of the district’s Steps to a Healthier MPS program, said.

Danzl said the schools that discouraged bicycle riding often cited safety concerns, such as busy streets or intersections near campus. Some neighborhoods also lack the infrastructure for safe riding, like trails and bike racks, she added.

Motivated by soaring transportation costs and rising childhood obesity rates, more schools are allowing and even encouraging students to bike to school.

The district wellness policy — adopted in 2006 and designed to encourage healthy eating and physical activity — directs schools to examine whether bicycling is safe and “encourage students to bike and walk to school where appropriate.”

Last year, the district collaborated with the city on the Minneapolis Safe Routes to School Report, which identified strategies to boost the numbers of students who bike or walk to school. The report also named Lake Harriet’s upper campus as one of the three district school sites with the highest number of student cyclists, along with South High School and Anthony Middle School.

“District-wide, on average, about 18 percent of the kids live in the walk zone,” Danzl said, referring to the area that is considered an easy walk to school. “So, there’s a huge potential to increase the supports that these kids need to have safe trips, that would make their trips safer and even more fun.”

In Southwest, some schools that banned bikes just a few years ago have reversed course.

One example is Kenny Community School, where bicycling was not allowed as recently as 2006. Now, Principal Bill Gibbs is seeking out bike rack donations, and has endorsed biking and walking as an expression of the school’s environmental theme.

A history of cycling

Carlson doesn’t take credit for the crowded bike racks at Lake Harriet. But he’s certainly played a role.

He started an after-school bike maintenance class shortly after arriving at Lake Harriet, and advocated making bicycle safety a part of the physical education curriculum. Students who don’t own a bicycle can borrow one of the 15 school bikes Carlson purchased several years ago with a grant.

Still, Carlson said Lake Harriet had high numbers of cyclists before any of those efforts. That might have as much to do with the neighborhood around Lake Harriet as anything happening in the school.

Lake Harriet parent Fred Mayer said many of the school’s families live nearby. There are only a few busy streets near the school, and many have crossing guards.

“Being close and feeling that the community is a safe one gives people a comfort level that some areas don’t have,” Mayer said.

The Safe Routes to School program is designed to address some of those safety issues to boost cycling numbers.

Asked about how other schools might better promote bicycle-riding, Carlson said it was important not to forget the biggest influence on kids is often other kids.

Said Carlson: “If their friends are doing it, and their friends are riding to school, that means a heckuva lot more than any adult saying it’s a good thing to ride your bike.”