Young people gather in New York to discuss the future of kids and their bicycles.

Mike Dowd, a teacher at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, wasn’t sure whether an afterschool bike club would be a success when he started it a couple of years ago. Now, he has kids coming up to him in the hallway and asking to join, but has to turn them away because the club can’t handle more than the 40 or so students who are already involved.

“We have far more interest in the school than we can handle,” said Dowd, speaking on a panel about school biking programs at the Youth Bike Summit that just wrapped up in New York City. “Of course, it all makes sense in retrospect. Bicycling is fun. Why wouldn’t they want to do it?”

Fun was definitely on the agenda for the kids who came from around the country to attend the summit, organized by the New York-based nonprofit Recycle-A-Bicycle. They're teenagers, after all.

But the youth who showed up were also there to talk about the most serious questions facing their generation – access to the political process, climate change, neighborhood vitality, jobs – and how bicycling is tied into all of these issues. Bicycles, for many of them, are a tool for not just for exploring the world, but maybe for changing it, too.

And the older generation was there to encourage them. “I would say that bicycles are revolutionary machines, because they construct equality,” said Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá and the summit’s keynote speaker. Despite his white hair, he was clearly speaking in terms his audience could relate to. “There is equality when people meet on bicycles -- between the poor and the rich, between young and the elderly.”

Building cities that reflect human dignity by prioritizing human beings over automobiles, said Peñalosa, will be imperative as this generation of young people grows into adulthood. “I believe a city reflects a society’s values…but also it constructs those values,” he said. “We are talking about the survival of humanity.” His speech earned him a standing ovation from an audience that filled Tishman Hall at the New School.

For the young people at the summit, being able to ride bicycles safely and comfortably was both a personal choice and a way to connect with their communities. Alicia, a junior at Brooklyn's Midwood High School, said she was motivated to join her school’s cycling club and learn how to ride safely and competently in part because she wanted to build her muscles and have fun with her friends. But there was a bigger reason, too. “It’s better for the environment,” she said. “When I grow up, I probably won’t get a car. I’ll probably get a bike.”

Many of the educators in attendance said that a lack of money and space prevented them from serving even a fraction of the kids who wanted to learn how to ride and improve their skills.

“There’s a huge desire and want,” said Zoë Cheswick, who works with New York public school students as an educator with Bike New York. “The question is, how do we provide this wonderful basic right? How do we scale what we are doing?”

There were plenty of organizations represented at the Youth Bike Summit that work to get kids on bikes. The summit’s sponsor, Recycle-A-Bicycle, works with 1,000 New York teens every year, teaching them not only how to ride but also how to fix and build bikes. Groups in attendance with similar programs included Chicago’s West Town Bikes and Seattle’s Bike Works.

All of these groups are limited in what they can do, in part by funding constraints, but also by the general lack of respect given to bicycling in the United States. It’s very different in countries such as the Netherlands, where bicycle education is considered a priority. All children in the Netherlands take classes in bicycle handling and the rules of the road, then are tested on what they’ve learned, so that they can ride safely to school by the time they are 12 years-old.

It gives them the right of mobility – something that for kids in the United States is more often symbolized by a driver’s license, unattainable until the age of 16, and even then subject to restrictions.

For Devlynn Chen, a 17-year-old senior at New York’s Bronx High School of Science, mobility is a big part of what she likes about biking.

Chen was the youth keynote speaker at the summit, and she talked about how she overcame her initial fear of riding over the city’s streets and bridges. A lifetime resident of the Lower East Side, Chen uses her bicycle to explore her neighborhood and to travel to new neighborhoods. When Sandy knocked out power to her apartment building, she carried her bike down 17 flights of stairs and rode the streets of Manhattan in search of batteries.

On that particular trip, she found herself riding the streets with countless other New Yorkers, using a form of transportation that suddenly became very desirable in a city where subways stopped running because of electrical problems and drivers couldn’t find gas to fuel up.

“I’m sure that people who owned bikes at that time, loved their bikes enough to marry them,” she said in her speech, getting a laugh. “For those people who didn’t have bikes, they wish they had bikes, just like those people who didn’t have Lamborghinis might wish they owned a Lamborghini – although I am not sure how you would be able to use a Lamborghini without gas.”

I asked Chen after her speech what she would tell people her age who are apprehensive about riding. “When you approach going on a bike the first time, you’re scared,” she said. “But if you do it the second time, it is so worth it. You get that freedom. Just overcome that one time, and you get that freedom for the rest of your life.”

Top image: Young people ride bicycles during Car Free Day at the main street in Jakarta July 8, 2012 (REUTERS/Beawiharta).

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