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When a child rides alone: A test of our kids and our streets

Would our streets pass the solo biking test?
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

I recently — and surreptitiously — followed my daughter Eleni as she rode home from soccer practice by herself. She’s almost 11 years old now and we’ve just recently started to let her do this. I followed her because I was curious to know how she would ride without me or her mom offering that perception of protection that our proximity provides.

If you have children (or even if you don’t), I’m sure you can relate to the mix of emotions that occur when you allow your own flesh and blood to become a full-fledged “vulnerable” road user. I was also curious if our neighborhood streets would live up to their reputation as “family friendly.”

We’ve been riding with Eleni ever since she was baby. She’s gone from a Burley trailer, to a rear-rack seat, to a tag-along, to her own bike all without much incident (besides a self-inflicted fall or two). Along the way I’ve always shared my tips, advice, and admonitions whenever we ride together: “Remember to always look and listen at intersections, whether you have a stop sign or not!”; “Never assume a car will stop for you!”; “Use your hand signals!”; “Watch for those car doors!” and so on and so forth.

With Eleni, I can never tell if I’m bugging her or if she’s actually absorbing the information. I figured secretly following her home was the perfect way to see if she’s been paying attention all these years.

When her practice ended, she mounted her bike (with her shin guards and soccer cleats still on). I was anxious as she rolled eastward from Arbor Lodge Park in north Portland. The first thing I noticed is that she was riding a bit too close to the curb (see lead photo). Then, her first stop-sign controlled intersection came up. It was a four-way stop, so I wasn’t too worried; but I still breathed a sigh of relief when she calmly came to a stop, looked both ways, looked both ways again, and then continued on…

(Note: These photos were taken with a telephoto lens, so I was further behind than it appears.)

Then, the first big test: She’d been hugging the curb too much (I thought) and a parked car was ahead of her. Just as she moved left to avoid it, another car started coming the other direction. Thankfully, the person driving the car saw her, slowed, and gave her plenty of room…

After another stop sign where cross traffic (which included a huge speeding truck!) didn’t stop, she was onto her first major intersection (N Dekum and Interstate). At this point, she was onto an official “neighborhood greenway” route, and I was happy to know that the traffic signal has been engineered specifically with bicycles in mind. Right on cue, the light sensor noticed her presence, changed to green, and she made her way across the MAX tracks and back into the neighborhood streets. From this point on, she followed sharrows all the way home, across the Bryant Street Bridge (which is only for walking and biking) over I-5, and then a few blocks on the Michigan Avenue Neighborhood Greenway…

This experience was just as much a test for Eleni as it was for me. In some respects, it was also a test for the City of Portland as to whether our streets are safe enough to be navigated without incident or fear by a 10-year-old. I’m happy to say that PBOT passed with flying colors. There are several neighborhood greenways that overlap in this area, which means there are speed bumps, new 20 mph speed limit signs, and a general expectation of bicycle traffic. The bike-timed light at Interstate is a huge bonus (although the green phase is a bit short in my opinion), as are the sharrow markings and the carfree crossing of I-5 via the Bryant Bridge.

But this was a very simple test and I recognize that not everyone in the city can ride from a park to their home in such tame conditions.

As I thought about this post, I wondered how this experiment would have played out in other parts of the city where large arterials are the norm and destinations are further apart. I’ll look for opportunities to do this again and will report back if I can.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear from parents out there: Do you let your kids ride in the street alone? If so, how old are they and what has your experience been? If not, what holds you back?