Children riding their bikes to school

Bike Twitter’s (or soon Bike Tooter?) tips for helping kids bike to school

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Children riding their bikes to school

Why bike to school?

There’s something special about biking to school and watching your child wave to friends as they near the front gates.  If you're just starting out, for Bike to School day (in Alameda County, it's Walk and Roll to School Day), or because you want to take climate action and make sure your kid(s) get exercise, here are some reasons why biking to school is great:

  • Builds community and friendships
  • Lets kids have fun riding with friends - bikes make people smile!
  • Promotes better air quality & a lower carbon footprint
  • Reduces the number of cars on the road
  • Gets Kids and adults healthy physical activity
  • Saves money on fuel
  • Allows kids to be independent

"You and your kids will be happier riding and get used to it quickly" - @share_hugh on Twitter

As easy as riding a bike

Biking to school is an easy habit to build.  This guide is a big one not because biking is difficult but because we wanted to include a lot of information for anyone who wanted to dive into the details.  I asked others on Twitter about advice they would give to help kids bike to school, and this is a compilation of my own experience and other helpful tips.

Adapt this bike to school guide for your own school

This started as a guide for out own school and is expanded as a general-purpose guide.  Feel free to use any or all of this for your own school.

How to prepare yourself, your child, and your bike

If you haven’t had a chance to bike often, it can feel unfamiliar at first, but you (and your kid) will quickly adapt!

What type of bike(s) do we need?

Here are a few ways that local parents in Oakland bike to school with their kids:

  • Cargo bike or e-Cargo bike (or via a cargo bike conversion kit)
  • Rear bike seat - (many elementary-school kids won’t fit on these anymore)
  • Ride their own bike - Most kids will be riding bikes with 20” wheels, perhaps 24” for older kids aged 8-9 or older
  • Tandem, bike trailer

How to prepare your kid for biking to school

Sometimes riding to school can be a mental or physical challenge for your kid. Here are some tips:

Bike Prep: A-B-C-Q Bike Check: An easy way to remember what to check on your bike

A: Air

Make sure your tires have enough air. If you have a pressure gauge, make sure the pressure is within the recommended range on the sidewall of the tires. Squeeze the tires. For road use, your tires should feel like squeezing a potato. (Have the kids try this, they’ll enjoy the metaphor)

B: Brakes

Straddle the bike, and make sure the brakes can stop it. Make sure the brake levers don’t make contact with the handlebar when you squeeze them, and make sure the levers snap back to their original position when you let go.

C: Chain, cassette, and cranks

Make sure the wheel turns when you pedal and turn the cranks. Make sure the pedals and cranks aren’t wobbly, and that the chain isn’t overly rusty.

Q: Quick release

If your bike has quick release wheels, make sure the quick release levers are in the closed position so that the wheels stay on the bike. In general, quickly check to see if the wheels are securely in place. You can also check the seat post quick release to make sure the seat is straight and won't slip.

How old can my kid be for riding a bike to school?

They're good to go if they can ride safely.  We have kindergarteners riding to school at ours.  If kids need a break, teach them where they should stop so they are protected from car traffic.

Practice riding

If you plan on your child riding their own bike, practice riding with them so they can have the confidence and knowledge to meet the safety tips below.

Make it fun

Tell stories, play a game, and engage with your surroundings. We often make up stories, count dogs, and say hi to neighbors and friends. Ride with a friend if you can. Kids can decorate their bike with streamers, pinwheels, stickers. Bring a portable speaker for music if you’d like.

  • "Make it fun, too. We say hello to the ducks and herons and geese we see. (urban dutch wildlife)" - @AuthorNico
  • "Make friends along the way" - @jiahongsitu

What should we bring?

  • Your child’s backpack (many have forgotten!)
    • "keep the weight low - no heavy backpacks" - @constantinou
  • A bike lock
  • Weather-appropriate gear (if it's raining, there is good rain gear out there!)

Other kid-preparation practicalities

  • Prep the night before:
    • @piecemama mentions that getting things ready the night before helps (great advice in general). Lunch, outfits, shoes, jackets, helmets, backpacks. And maybe an index card checklist.
    • "Organize bike/backpacks etc the night before so it's *relatively* stress free in the morning - @renomate
  • @enobacon notes that if you have an electric cargo bike, you can (will?) carry ponchos, blanket, snacks, mittens, hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, and lots of other accessories.
  • "Make the bikes easy to get at in the morning" - @D12BikeBus

Kids Bike Safety Tips

Unless you're lucky enough to have protected lanes, roads and paths are often shared resources.  We need to respect other users and mitigate risk by being visible and predictable. If things start feeling weird, it’s always ok to dismount from your bike and walk on the sidewalk.

Safety tips for kids who ride their own bike

Road biking skills that kids should have:

Practice riding with your child so that they will be able to:

  • Ride in a straight line
  • Start and stop smoothly (using their brakes, not their feet)
  • Ride on the right side of the road
  • Obey all traffic signs and stop at stop signs and stop lights
  • Avoid the door zone

Where should you ride relative to your kid?

The general consensus is to ride with your kid in front of you. If you’re the only adult in the group, ride behind your kid, so you can see them. Lead and give directions from behind.  If you’re able to have multiple adults in the group, have an adult in front and an adult in the back.

Recommendations for how to fit kids bicycle helmets

Helmets are recommended for adults and legally required for under 18 years of age.

Helpful helmet fitting tips: Remember Eyes / Ears / Mouth:

  • Eyes: The brim of the helmet should be an inch or two above the rider’s eyebrows
  • Ears: The “Y” of the helmet straps should be below the rider’s ears when buckled
  • Mouth: The helmet should be snug against the rider’s chin. Not so tight that it is uncomfortable though.

Riding a bike on a road with cars and others

Roads in the USA are generally not great for people to bike on.  Your child may need to bike on roads without protection from cars.

  • Yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, they have the right of way.
  • Respect road signs and traffic rules, as they are designed to prevent collisions.

According to California Law, people on bikes are legally required to ride as far to the right as is safe and reasonable.  This does not mean that they are required to ride at the rightmost edge of the road. For example, the “door zone” is an area where a car door can be opened into oncoming traffic, and people on bikes should maintain at least the width of a car door between themselves and a parked car.

People on bikes can occupy a car traffic lane if

  • The lane is not wide enough for a bike and automobile to safely share it side by side. 
  • They are traveling the same speed as automobile traffic

See California Bicycle Laws for more detail.

Teaching children about traffic intersections

Intersections are a great opportunity to teach children traffic rules. Be patient, and encourage children to look for themselves as you guide them.  Teach children to assess the situation and right-of-way themselves rather than just following your lead.

Intersections: Follow the adults or make your own decisions?

There are different approaches one can take for intersections. If it's a big crew, our Bike Bus will cork the intersections and have everyone roll through together.  This keeps the group together and helps enhance the safety in numbers. If it's a smaller group, we try to encourage individual decision making, which will help the kids immensely with learning how to navigate them:

  • "Encourage decision making in the child. If the child elects to get off and walk on the path instead of negotiating a tricky parked car, that's better than blindly following you without the skill set or confidence." - @sarahtheeggyet1
  • "Be patient at crossings - you want the kids to look for themselves and not just go when you say, so leave time for that." - @Rosalux

You can turn traffic intersections into a game.  After you've passed the intersection, ask the child what "shape" of intersection they'd just passed. ("T", or "+", for example).  Ask them how many stop signs there were.  Later, when at an intersection, you can ask them when it's safe to go, and let them "lead" the way.

Visibility and bike lights for riding when it's dark

In the winter months, it can get dark fairly early, especially if your child is in aftercare. Bike headlights and tail lights help stay visible. Don’t forget to bring lights for riding home during the winter months.

In daylight, you may want to add visibility aids for your clothing or on your bike. You may also want to run your headlights and tail lights during the day as well.

"Think about lights and reflectivity sooner (August) rather than later ('wow, these mornings are getting dark' in Oct) - @joseph_morris


Selecting a Bike to School Route

Tips for selecting a bike to school route

There are no dedicated bike paths that lead directly to our school.  Hopefully things are easier for yours!  To get to school, you’ll probably need to ride on the street at some point. Sometimes it’s worth planning a longer route to prioritize calmer streets and easier street crossings. (thank you @alidacantor)

  • The Google Maps Biking Layer is pretty helpful for finding bike lanes and routes
  • Look for streets where people drive slower and there there are less cars
  • Minimize busy street crossings
  • Test your route beforehand, with and without your kid
    • "Plan your route in advance and test it." - @D12BikeBus

Crossing busy intersections with a bike: it may be easier at a signal

It’s usually easier to cross a busy intersection with a traffic signal. Drivers are more accustomed (and more legally required) to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, so if it helps, remember that you and your kids can “transform” into pedestrians and walk across the street.

Riding bikes on sidewalks

Riding on the sidewalk is generally legal for children and not legal for adults. Sidewalk riding is not recommended for rider safety. Drivers do not expect faster-moving bikes when they pull in and out of driveways and parking lots. Riding on the sidewalk can also create risks for other users of the sidewalk.

However, on roads where car traffic speeds are excessive and where there are few driveways and obstacles, riding on the sidewalk may be the safer option.

Kids on bikes and hills

Our ride to school features a mild incline, and can be challenging for some kids. Budget extra time, encourage kids to safely take a break if they need one. Ensure they pull over to the curb before stopping.

Kids get stronger quickly, and with a bit of practice, the hill won’t feel like as much of a challenge.

How long does it take to bike to school?

How long it takes to bike to school will depend on how fast your kids are, but budget about 10-15 minutes per mile if kids are on their own bikes. You can budget 7-10 minutes per mile as an adult. These are rough estimates and will depend on terrain, stoplights, your effort level, and whether you have an electric assist.

Younger kids may need more time for stops (to add or remove a jacket, other adjustments, or to take a short break), so budget that into your ride time as well.

Route timing

Many people suggest leaving time in the morning, so that the ride and preparation isn't too stressful. Easier said than done of course.  Kids are unfortunately sometimes competing for road space with car traffic. "The curve for morning drop-off traffic is a very tall, narrow peak. Which means that being even five minutes earlier than that peak can be an entirely different ride.  Plan your ride to arrive just before the drop-off crunch happens. Those few minutes will change the experience" - @OTPR_water

Advocate for better infrastructure

I think that all schools should have supportive bike/walk infrastructure so that people aren't forced to drive to school.

  • "Force the local government to make safe commuting options" - @sharonperry133

Once you get to school

Bike parking at school

It helps to know where you can park your bike at school.  Ours has a few main bike racks, with some inside the school gate for a little extra security.

  • "Covered bike parking" - @Shallam1 (This is especially useful to help protect bikes from the elements!)

Locks and locking

I don’t think theft has been an issue at our school, but locking the bike is recommended.  Some curious kids have played with lights and other accessories left on bikes during the school day, so plan accordingly if you’d like that to not happen.

Reference: How to lock your bike - San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

What if.. And other questions

  • @arvi1000 notes that riding with kids "can feel unfamiliar at first, but you quickly adapt. Don't judge viability from your first ride."

Tips for kids who are having a hard time

  • "You know you're doing something I've never even seen Spiderman do: ride a bike. You're doing great" - via Paul Buchanan

  • "praise good riding, rather than scold mistakes" - @ceri_hirst

(this is a work in progress, we'll continue adding as we're able!)

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