For three weeks this May, three towns in Northeast Ohio are making a bid to be the bike-to-school capital of the United States.
Wednesday, May 8 is National Bike to School Day, but middle and high school students in Rocky River, Medina, and Bay Village got started this year on May 6, kicking off the three-week Century Cycles Bike to School Challenge, which has become an annual ritual since it started six years ago.
Scott Cowan, the owner of Century Cycles, started the challenge when he heard about local high school students protesting higher gas prices by riding their bikes to school. He took that as a sign that local kids could be encouraged to ride bikes for transportation on a more regular basis.
The event has proved hugely popular. Last year, over the full three-week event, organizers estimated that 4,000 kids biked more than 52,000 miles, burning about 885,428 calories while keeping roughly 57,292 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air. The financial savings amounted to $8,718.75, representing the approximate cost of 2,325 gallons of gasoline. Ridership on the first day this year was up 33 percent over 2012.
“I never would never ever have dreamt that it would get this big,” says Cowan. “But everybody’s supported it, from the top down, and that’s why.”
Created without any support from national organizations, the Century Cycles Challenge bucks a national trend that has seen school bike commuting rates plummet over the last 40 years. In 2009, only 13 percent of kids biked to school in the U.S., as compared to 48 percent in 1969. In some places, kids have been punished by school authorities for choosing to ride their bikes.
Not in Bay Village and the surrounding towns, which are all relatively affluent communities within a short commute of Cleveland. Kids get “ride tickets” stamped every time they make a trip to school by bike and win prizes donated by local businesses depending on how often they ride. There’s also a competition to design a challenge T-shirt in each of the participating schools.
Sean McAndrews, principal of Bay Middle School, says he sees multiple benefits for his students. “Research shows that exercise in the morning helps kids focus better,” he says. "I just think it’s awesome that they’re off the couch and off their video games.” He estimates that during the challenge, as many as 75 percent of the 820 5th through 8th graders at the school arrive by bike, and the wrought iron fence around the football field becomes an enormous bike rack.
But it doesn’t end there. McAndrews says that these days, as many as half of the school’s students ride to school on a more regular basis, some coming from two or three miles away. He says that the town of Bay Village, on the shores of Lake Erie, is home to a lot of “health-conscious” people, including many parents who work at the nearby Cleveland Clinic. Some parents had concerns at first, but he says their fears were assuaged by the school’s emphasis on safety, and the town’s willingness to create safer streets as well by helping to map routes for students and putting up “share the road” signs.
It’s not just the kids who are getting the message about biking as transportation. "It has really changed the minds of the community," says Cowan. "You see tons of parents riding to the pool or to the park. It truly has changed. It’s mind-boggling."
Kids are seeing the value of bicycling in a whole new way, says McAndrews. "They see that biking is a way to get around,” he says. "They realize, 'I don’t need my mom or dad to go to soccer practice.’ It fosters a sense of independence."
Cowan, who is 52, grew up in Bay Village, and as a kid rode a bike for transportation all the time. “Back then, it wasn’t abnormal,” he says.
Cowan acknowledges the old-fashioned small-town layout of Bay Village and the other towns helps to make biking a relatively easy choice in these communities. But he is optimistic that even in more sprawl-oriented developments, the tide could turn in favor of bicycles.
“There are a lot of other communities that have the capacity to do more bicycling, and we should be doing that,” he says, adding that even arterial roads with heavy traffic could be modified to become bike-friendly. “If the money were spent down the road to put in good bicycle lanes, it could be done,” he says. “I do believe if the mindset changes – and it is changing – people are going to get back to seeing bicycles as a great way to get around.”