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How One Parent Made Biking a Priority for Fairfax County Public Schools
When Jeff Anderson requested bike racks at his children’s school in the fall of 2008, he had no idea this simple request would lead to him playing a key role in supporting the Safe Routes to Schools initiative in Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia). After the bike racks were installed at Wolftrap Elementary School, Jeff determined that he now needed to find a way to encourage students to start using them. In the spring of 2009 he coordinated a bike to school day that ran in conjunction with National Bike to Work Day. When 40 students turned out for the event Jeff realized that he was on to something.
Since 2009 Jeff has worked with staff at Wolftrap Elementary to establish what is called a bike train. Once a month kids meet at Jeff’s house and bike 1.8 miles to school along a predefined route. They pick up additional riders along the way and use back roads to avoid congestion. The bike train has been going strong for four years, with students biking to school on cold January days when it is 18 degrees and snowy, and on hot June days when it is 85 degrees.
Recently Jeff has started working to expand the bike train program to other schools in the district. This past May he coordinated a Bike and Walk to School Challenge (now in its fifth year), encouraging schools to compete against each other by recruiting students to bike to school every day for a week. Awards were given to students at the seven participating schools. Support for the challenge came from school board members, as well as INOVA (a local hospital system), the local transportation department, the police and a group of local bike racers. Jeff has also joined other schools on their bike trains and regularly attends PTA meetings to answer questions for schools looking to start a walking and biking program.
Jeff’s bike train program, and Fairfax County Public School’s efforts to encourage walking and biking to school, have garnered them recognition at the national level. Nike co-wrote a study called Designed to Move, and asked the National Center for Safe Routes to School to write a section on biking and walking to school. Safe routes reached out to Wolftrap Elementary School and featured Jeff’s program in the report. Nickelodeon also featured the bike train program in a video clip on their website.
When students participate in one of Jeff’s bike trains, they not only learn how to be comfortable on a bike, they also learn basic bike safety which is something not currently taught in Fairfax County Public Schools. “Through this program kids ultimately get to the point where they can bike on their own,” says Jeff. “And parents get over the fear factor they have about letting their kids bike to school.” In addition, Wolftrap Elementary School held a Bike Rodeo last spring for those kids who don’t get the opportunity to bike to school.
Congestion & Pollution
The bike train program also helps to decrease the number of parents who are driving their kids to school. When parents drop their kids off at school, it contributes to congestion and carbon emissions. A large number of students are within walking distance of the school so Jeff is working to encourage those kids to get out of the car.
Jeff has found that the bike train program also helps students become more physically fit. The route that the train follows takes students up a short, steep hill. When Jeff first started the bike train, some of the kids had to walk their bikes up the hill. Now he sees those same kids easily navigating the hill. In fact, some of them practice the hill so they don’t have to get off the bike in front of their friends. Teachers report that biking helps prepare students for the day so that they are more ready to learn. They aren’t groggy, and biking to school gets their blood pumping and the chattiness out.
Start a Program
Here are some tips from Jeff for starting a bike train at your school:
- Start by recruiting a small group of kids and parents that you know at the school. It will be easier for you to enforce biking rules if you already have a good relationship with members of the group.
- Get the PTA and principal on board to help support the program.
- Establish and scout out a biking route ahead of time. Avoid major roads if possible.
- Don’t let backpacks and instruments be a barrier. Recruit parents to drive those items to school or use an old kiddie trailer to haul the stuff.
- Require that kids already know how to ride a bike without training wheels. The focus should not be on teaching kids how to ride, but on teaching them how to be safe and comfortable on a bike.
- Participate in Bike to School Day! This is a great opportunity for students to feel that they are part of something that is happening at the national level.
- Don’t take “no” for an answer, and be prepared for complications at the school and district level as you work to get your bike train rolling.
- Visit the Eco-Schools USA website and learn how our transportation pathway can help support your bike train program.