We love biking to school.
With Portland Public Schools starting in less than a week (!), this week I’ll share a bit about my family’s commute and then get into biking to school more broadly.
My two kids attended the same elementary school last year, a tad less than a mile from our house. It was a perfectly flat ride, but with two busy crossings that meant I always accompanied the kids, though they sometimes zoomed ahead of me once we got to the quiet part.
We biked to school every day using a route I chose carefully to avoid the worst of the busy roads and incorporate some fun gravel. I even devised an icy-road route for winter; but I figured if the snow or ice was too scary for biking, school would most likely be canceled (and it was for one day last year). My backup idea was to take the bus if conditions weren’t to my liking.
This year will be different with a middle-schooler and an elementary-schooler. The staggered start times will allow me to escort each of them to-and-from school, though I hope to get them riding independently after a short period of adjustment.
Middle school is farther from home — 3.8 miles, or around 20 minutes (per Google maps), though the route we plan to take is 4.3 miles and around 23 minutes (I’m not sure how many minutes to add to that to account for “kid speed”). As for safety, there are a lot of busy crossings, some with stop lights, some with Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs, the button-activated flashing lights by crosswalks usually accompanied by a “vehicles may not stop” recording in English and Spanish), and one with just a crosswalk and crossbike (the green zebra markings indicating a bike route is crossing the street).
Our address is served by the school bus and I hope to use that as a back-up on horrible weather days and possibly even on more days (or all days) if he likes the bus. My original plan was to ride our tandem back-and-forth to middle school so he doesn’t need to jump from a short, flat commute to a long, somewhat hilly commute and tire himself out.
Source good helmets and locks
I helped run the May Walk + Bike Challenge Month at our elementary school last year and discovered that a couple relatively small things kept quite a few kids from participating in our events: helmets and locks. PBOT’s Bike Resources on a Budget webpage starts with three locations to find low-cost helmets (and see my tips for tackling toddler helmet hesitancy post if you need help getting said helmet on a smaller kid).
As for locks, since I haven’t budgeted to get my kids locks as sturdy (and pricey) as my own U-lock with cable, they use affordable chain locks. They have combination locks so I don’t have to worry about lost keys. I’ve noticed unlocked bikes at our racks at times and that makes me feel pretty safe about their locked bikes during the school day, though previous years have seen a lot of bike theft. There doesn’t seem to be any way around stronger locks costing more, but if you factor in the price of replacing an entire bike it helps make the lock feel worth it’s weight in gold (speaking of which, stronger locks tend to weigh more). I still aspire to own better locks for my kids’ bikes!
Know before you go
Just as important as having all the gear is having a comfortable route to school. I’ve shared my route-finding techniques in a previous column and I do indeed take the more-direct-less-comfortable route when I’m traveling alone (after dropping kids off in the morning and on the way to pick them up in the afternoon) than I do when we’re all riding together.
I strongly recommend doing a test run to time how long it takes. Feeling stressed and trying to beat the morning bell can lead to bad decisions in traffic.
And remember: biking to school doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. We bike every day because it’s our easiest option, but even biking just once a month is terrific! Even biking just once a month in just one direction with car support to collect the bikes is great!
What about you? Are you a seasoned bike-to-schooler or thinking about starting a new habit this year? There’s still time before school starts to ask questions in the comments below!
Thanks for reading. Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch if it sounds like fun to you. I’d especially like to profile families of color so please get in touch or ask friends of color who bike with their kids if they’re interested in being profiled. And as always, feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.
Browse past Family Biking posts here.
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Madi Carlson (@familyride on Twitter) wrote our Family Biking column from February 2018 to November 2019. She’s the author of Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living (Mountaineers Books).
In her former home of Seattle, Madi was the Board President of Familybike Seattle, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting bicycling as a means for moving towards sustainable lifestyles and communities. She founded Critical Lass Seattle, an easy social group ride for new and experienced bicyclists who identify as women and was the Director of Seattle’s Kidical Mass organization, a monthly ride for families. While she primarily bikes for transportation, Madi also likes racing cyclocross, all-women alleycats, and the Disaster Relief Trials. She has been profiled in the Associated Press, Outdoors NW magazine, CoolMom, and ParentMap, and she contributed to Everyday Bicycling by Elly Blue.