If you follow cycling-related news feeds like I do, you probably noticed a host of commentary on the Frontier Group's recently released study Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What It Means for Transportation Policy.
This report puts actual numbers to the trends bicycling advocates and industry insiders have been witnessing for the past several years. As a parent of two "millennials", I can personally attest to many of the behavior traits highlighted in the study.
It's pretty simple really; our kids care about the environment, they are continually engaged in socializing, and owning a car is less of a priority for them than it was for past generations. Add to that thousands of high school graduates from rural and suburban areas leaving home and attending college in medium to large urban population centers and it doesn't take long for them to be bitten by the city bug and the relative ease of getting around by foot, bike, or bus.
Bicycling is the mode of transport most similar to a car. A bike is always at the ready to hop on and pedal off. It's equally fast on congested and residential streets. It even makes the same personal statement with its variety of available models, colors, and accessories - reflecting an individual's unique sense of style. This trend toward individuality has been a boon to the recycling and repurposing of old ten-speeds...
As encouraged as I am to see young adults discover bicycling (and all the benefits to society this trend entails), it still bothers me that our youth - ages six to eighteen - do not discover bicycling at the same rate as past generations did.
After a leisurely 4-hour rail trail outing with some friends Saturday, the four of us shared stories of our childhood days and the significant roles our bikes played in our personal development.
My purple Sears Spyder put my vivid imagination into motion. It was a muscle car, a motorcycle, a fighter jet, and a horse all at a moment's notice. I couldn't sit in front of a TV and experience the same flight simulator as Chuck Yeager - I had to imagine it. Not to mention that my parents never wanted me playing inside...
My friend Paul grew up in the city. He would jump on his bike and venture up to the Chicago Botanic Garden. He didn't have to report in his whereabouts to his mom. My friend Javier had a baseball bat holder on the sissy bar of his Schwinn Stingray. He squeezed his mitt over the bat and headed out for the entire day. The four of us chimed in unison our respective parents' one rule, "don't be late for dinner!"
Sure those were different times. Our parents couldn't fathom monsters like John Wayne Gacy, the kidnapper of Adam Walsh, or the Tylenol killer, as none of this had happened or been widely reported yet. Still, their brand of random evil wasn't exactly the start of a phenomenon. Sick individuals have always existed.
Greater danger existed in the fact that there were no bicycle helmets available to protect our heads. Of course cars of that era had no seat belts, let alone shoulder restraints, and we sat facing backward in the "way back" of station wagons just waiting to be launched through the windshield of whatever closely tailing car might happen to rear end us... We climbed steep ladders and slid down sun-baked, sheet metal-clad tornado slides. Clearly, child safety wasn't given the same priority in 1970s parenting.
All that aside, youth bicycling has turned from an individual activity into a family outing. We fill up water bottles, pack fun fruits, strap on helmets, and take our bikes to the bike path. We attach trailers and trail-a-bikes to adult bikes and we ride together to picnics, the public pool, or a play date. We might even ride with our kids to school in the morning and ride back to join them on their ride home in the afternoon. Few of us our willing to trust our kids' safety to anyone but ourselves.
My new friend Robert summed up the rationale for this very succinctly; "I don't trust drivers."
And I have to agree with him. There were fewer cars on the roads in the 1970s when we grew up. The population was lower. Many families only had one car. People were in less of a hurry to get places. They didn't eat, shave, read, text, or talk on the phone while driving like they do now. Our parents and their peers exhibited a responsibility to the other people they encountered while driving.
So, given our reality, what do we do to get more kids on bikes?
We continue to put them in trailers. We put on and take off the training wheels and let them rule the sidewalk. We help them feel like a "big kid" while helping mom or dad pedal on the trail-a-bike. We encourage them to ride their own bikes on bike path outings. We take them away from the video games and we promote every single bike trip as its own adventure. We lead by example by riding ourselves...
We also need to get more involved with Safe Routes to School. We rode bikes to school. Our kids should experience that sense of freedom and personal responsibility, too.
We should all be encouraged by this trend toward more bicycling by young adults. As with everything, we can all do more to promote this active transportation / lifestyle choice. The more we demonstrate that bikes belong, the safer it becomes for all of us - kids included.
Keep riding and be safe!
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