Top three things Bike Smart fifth graders want you to know: Advice to adult bike commuters from the perspective of a fifth grade Bike Smart student

As one of the youth program coordinators at Ecology Action, we work closely with the Safe Routes to School national movement and elementary schools all over Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, teaching pedestrian and bike safety to second and fifth grade students. The transition to virtual programming during this COVID-19 pandemic has been tough, but with shelter in place orders, more people are getting outside with daily walks and bike rides. Every day, I feel how incredibly important it is to promote moving our bodies outside in an active and safe way, and throughout this COVID-19 shift, I have had the opportunity to connect more with my fifth-grade students and learn about some of their barriers to bike riding.

We try to teach bike safety in a way that is accessible to students of all levels and backgrounds with fun safety tips, dance moves, and opportunities to talk about the joys of biking. Especially in fifth grade, when they are not old enough to have a license and drive a car, biking is a form of independent transportation that gives them full autonomy. I’ve observed a clear difference in the bike knowledge and enthusiasm of those students with the privilege of having parents who bike and live in places, like Santa Cruz, that have relatively safe infrastructure versus students who do not have access to that support and safety. Yet there are students in every class, no matter where we teach, that are excited about biking!

So, here are three things that some of our Bike Smart fifth graders would want the average adult bike commuter to know to make cycling better and more accessible for everyone:

  1. Don’t judge us for biking on the sidewalk, and please be patient!
    1. Students have shared with me that adult cyclists will scold and even yell at them for biking on the sidewalk. Though it is technically safer to be biking on the road, in the bike lane, and with the flow of traffic, that is under the assumption that there is safe biking infrastructure and that students are comfortable enough riding to be next to cars. It can feel safer for new, young, cyclists to bike on the sidewalk and not feel intimidated when other folks pass them. Also, this gives them the opportunity to practice their balance by signaling to cars by removing hands from the handlebar and doing confident shoulder checks. Rather than scolding, try to be patient and give understanding to kids that may be doing the wrong thing because, most of the time, they are not aware of the rules or feel it is safer for them on the sidewalk.
    2. Another solution is to advocate for safer biking infrastructure in your area by joining local advocacy groups that protect cyclists and pedestrians (for example, Bike Santa Cruz County and the Transportation Agency for Monterey County), advocate and write to your elected officials about the importance of safe infrastructure, and report hazardous issues (for example, with Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission’s hazard reporting system).
  2. Helmets are not just for kids; they are for adults too.
    1. Don’t be a hypocrite—an adult’s brain is still important to protect, and needing to wear a helmet is not sign of your cycling skill level. Be a good example for students (and everyone else!) and show them that, no matter what, wearing a helmet is crucial and important regardless of age and “coolness.”
  3. Follow the rules of the road!
    1. Many students have shared with me that they did not know that the rules of the road, like stopping at stop signs and stop lights, applied to people riding bikes because they see so many cyclists not obeying those laws. Again, be a good role model for students by following those rules of the road, stopping for pedestrians, and using your hand signals to turn because this is all part of being a safe cyclist and navigating the streets we all share.

Biking can be fun for everyone regardless of age, size, or riding experience. Find what feels right for you and encourage yourself and others to move your bodies in ways that feel good and keep everyone safe and happy. I am so grateful to connect with students from all over and be part of a larger movement that promotes active transportation for our personal, community, and planetary health.