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Hallelujeh (or What Biking to School Just Might Have You and Your Children Singing)

Posted Aug 15 2010 3:50am
It's sweaty.  It's time-consuming.  And it's questionably safe.  But my younger daughter is back to school and we're biking every day.  

Once we get out of our neighborhood (the most difficult part of the trip), it's pretty much downhill for the next mile and a half and I can tell she gets lost in her own world, quickly forgetting I'm behind her.

I often hear her singing, and it's always this song (you may enjoy clicking it to play while you finish reading this post):

The number of bike riders is holding pretty steady at this school of 900 students at six.  Not six percent.  Six.  Less than one percent.  Five boys and my daughter.  Two other moms and three dads.  Two of the kids are in the same class, the one taught by the Environmental Committee teacher. I'm tracking the numbers over the school year to see how and why they change.

One mom rides with her son, and his dad has been driving the overstuffed backpack and meeting up with them at the school's bike rack.  They asked me about my panniers Friday.  We talked about all the reasons kids don't ride and the various solutions my daughters and I have discovered over the years, such as:

* Advocating for lighter backpacks (the number one reason folks tell me they don't walk or bike to school is because of the weight of their children's backpacks.)  

* Advocating for Public Works vehicles to NOT park on sidewalks. ("Well, drivers in this city do not like when we inconvenience them by parking on the street," does not make a more Walkable/Bike-Friendly City!)

* Advocating for enforced crosswalk laws and leash laws. (The overwhelming majority of drivers in my city literally "speed up to beat" a child in a crosswalk rather than stop to let the child safely cross, and you don't know stress until a large unleashed dog charges your child on a bike.) 

* Frankly, there's a whole lot of advocating!  I'd like to give a big shout-out to City of Dunwoody Councilor John Heneghan who not only always listens to all citizens but always takes concerns seriously and tries to solve problems proactively. 

* Getting the panniers, and the front basket, and the bungee cord.  

* Riding one way and then me picking up the bike during the day with the car and then my child and me walking home with this bag for holding the backpack, lunch, violin . . . (We call it the Mary Poppins bag.)

* Riding one way and then me parking at the mile point so my daughter can at least ride halfway home (before the uphill really kicks in--remember that lovely downhill on the way to school?) and I ride the Razor scooter or walk with the Mary Poppins bag since we can't fit both bikes in the Prius.  

* Riding one way and then my daughter takes the bus home (which we'll do one day a week). 

* Being a "quick change" artist. (Yes, I often have to be at a work meeting or interview in person at 8:30 or 9 AM.  I have become a master of "switching gears" quickly--washed, changed, out the door.  And guess what?  My workout for the day is then behind me.)

* Accepting that it's not "all or nothing," and that it's not always going to work.  It rains.  Kids get crabby or overtired.  Large cardboard box projects sometimes need to get to school.  Sometimes the challenges of the day are just too great.  That's okay. 

I saw one bike-rider's father hop a curb, a big smile on his face, and I thought of how one of the greatest joys of life is feeling like a kid again when you ride your bike.  But you can't feel like a kid again when you ride your bike if you didn't ride your bike when you were a kid! 

I think one of the biggest gifts for life we can give our children is that memory.  I just want you to know that if you live somewhere where biking to school is at least a mile-long trip and it involves hills and heat, there is a very small aperture of opportunity during which you can do this--when the kids are strong enough to go the distance and young enough to not care about their hair when they get there.  

That window closes faster than you think it will.  And then those days of saying "maybe we'll ride someday soon, honey" are gone. (We hear kids at the bus stops we pass asking their parents if they can ride and that's often the answer.)  

Additionally, here in my city with an elementary school start time of 7:45 AM or so, once the time changes in October, it is pitch black in the morning and riding to school presents a whole different set of challenges.

Also, for those of you hitting your late 40s right about now, have you noticed the new sounds coming out of your joints?  The slowing of your metabolism?  The way pain lingers a little longer?  I certainly have.  And it has become abundantly clear to me that if I hope to ride bikes with my grandchildren (which I do), then I simply must not stop riding bikes now.  This isn't just about the kids and their health.  

When we got to the school the first day, the carpool line stretched as far as we could see.  And I couldn't help but think of our nation's children (61% of whom used to walk or bike to school just a generation ago), their wings clipped, when I found this dead butterfly as I was riding home that day.

In fact, I found a dead butterfly every single day this week, and I wished I had not been the one to find them.  I wished children walking to school had found them.  Had stood and marveled over them.  Had brought them to school and shown their teachers and their friends.  Had discovered their names and researched facts about them.  Had written a story or painted a picture inspired by them.  Had wondered all day, while gazing out the window, what else was out there, what else could they find, what else would they learn, what else would tomorrow bring . . .

My city's schools held a number of Walk and Bike to School Days last year that were very popular.  One woman told an organizing parent, "We should do this more often," and he said to her, "You know, the sidewalks are actually open every day!  You can do this more often!"  

I stopped at Your DeKalb Farmers Market (a year-round indoor facility) in Decatur the other day and saw this bike.  I took some pictures of it because it would make a perfect Food Bike for delivering to the food pantry from the community garden (I'm still on a quest for solutions--my panniers are inadequate for the amount of food we've been harvesting!) When I left the building, I saw its owner and we got to talking.

Meet Thor.  He is from San Francisco and lives in Atlanta now.  He rides his three children to school each day in the bucket of this bike.  He said to me, "Today is, what, our 14th Code Orange smog alert day this year?  It's not going to change unless people stop driving."

And that's another thing.  I used to tell people it was easy to ride to school and to grow your own food and to recycle and to use less water and to go drug-free on your lawn and to vote with your dollar when you shop and to . . . 

You know what?  It's not.  It's hard and continual work, especially at first until it's a series of new habits, but even after that, even always.  It's often uphill.  It's often sweaty.  And it requires change.

But there comes a moment when you lie on the cool, mossy earth and you gaze up at the heavens and you feel the strength of your body and the joy in your heart and you exclaim one thing and one thing only.


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