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Third-graders targeted for bicycle education

After 20 years of 'bike rodeos,' cycling to school reaches historic highs

Big enough to balance on a two-wheeler but little enough to be impressionable, third-graders long have been the focus of intensive bicycle education in Palo Alto schools.

This week, 8-year-olds across Palo Alto brought their bikes to school for "bike rodeos," in which they took over the playgrounds to practice skills like how to steer around broken glass, what to do if a garbage bin is blocking the bike lane (look and scan over your left shoulder before steering around the obstacle) and how to navigate intersections.

The rodeos were among many bike-related events to mark Palo Alto's "Walk & Roll Week," celebrating ways to get around town by means other than the family car.

Organizers say the third-grade bike-safety program -- a staple of Palo Alto's elementary curriculum for 20 years -- has nurtured a bike culture and helped propel school bicycling rates to historic highs.

Fifty-one percent of Palo Alto's middle school students, 43 percent of high school students and 13 percent of elementary students typically ride their bikes to school, according to bike counts on campuses taken last month.

"Third grade is the age where children are developmentally ready to be stable on a bicycle, and we have a good chance to affect their lifelong bicycle skills," said Kathy Durham, a City of Palo Alto employee who has marshaled legions of parent volunteers to work on bicycle safety for two decades.

At Hoover Elementary School Tuesday, lead parent volunteer Zainab Jamal kept time and blew her whistle as 70 third-graders rotated among six different bike-training stations, including one that offered a tutorial on helmet fitting.

Blue tape was laid down on the playground to simulate bike lanes, and parent volunteers holding signs pretended to be cars. Large sponges stood in for "broken glass." Kids practiced their skills by biking around the circuits.

At one station, a uniformed Palo Alto police officer used real cars to teach kids how to peer around parked vehicles to make a safe exit from their driveways.

The bike rodeos focus on "targeted risk-reduction rather than scaring children or talking about how dangerous it is," Durham said.

"Yeah, it's dangerous, but there are ways you can reduce the risk by being predictable, visible and aware of what's going on around you."

The third-grade training is honed to address some of the top causes of bike accidents in Palo Alto, which, according to Durham, are cyclists not braking properly at stop signs; swerving out of bike lanes; coming out of driveways and not yielding properly at intersections.

In other Walk & Roll activities this week, elementary students made bike-themed sidewalk murals and competed for "golden sneaker" awards.

"Palo Alto is one of the most bike-friendly and environmentally conscious communities in the country. I can think of no better way to start a morning than a healthy, zero-emissions trip to school or work," said school district Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who bikes to work and around to school campuses daily in a helmet resembling a watermelon.

Across Palo Alto's 17 K-12 campuses, 31 percent of all student trips are by bike, compared to a national figure of 17 percent.

Free bike inspections, safety tips and route maps will be available Sunday, Oct. 13, at Bike Palo Alto!, a family-oriented event from 1 to 4 p.m. at El Carmelo Elementary School, 3024 Bryant St. (at Loma Verde Avenue). Families can depart from El Carmelo to explore three bike routes that highlight easy ways to get around the city to avoid traffic.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 10, 2013 at 6:37 pm

I wish the cops would teach parents as well. The other day, I saw one driver blasting his horn at a couple of kids bicycling in front of him. They were riding safely and legally, just too slow for his BMW.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2013 at 6:57 pm

I also agree that the schools should make it family bike rodeo day. I see a lot of parents teaching kids really bad habits, such as riding on the wrong side of the street and not stopping at stop signs. Parents should also ride behind their kids to keep an eye on them, rather than in front. Most ride in front and have no idea what their kids are doing behind them, sometimes it is silly behavior and the kids do not realize that they are riding dangerously.

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Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Oct 10, 2013 at 8:03 pm


Impeding traffic is illegal. From what you say, the BMW driver was justified.

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Posted by parent/biker
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 10, 2013 at 9:19 pm

I think the junior high and HS kids need a refresher too. I drive 2 mph around them because they loose canons. Sometimes they just swerve in front of you without signaling and don't even look because they have headphones in. It's annoying and puts me in danger and my children. I'm a biker, I'm a mother and I sometimes drive. I try to be aware and alert but if some stupid kid pops out in front of me and I can't break fast enough I will be angry at him for being so careless and putting my children's and my life in danger. Everyone on the road needs to be wiser. including those parents with their giant mini vans and SUV's who are always running late to everything and flying all over the place. This is a biking town. ACCEPT IT! Bikers, don't give the rest of us a bad name. AND STOP BIKING ON ALMA!. Go to BRYANT OR PARK BLVD. There's NO ROOM TO BIKE ON ALMA, you're putting everyone in danger.

Like this comment
Posted by Vanessa Warheit
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 12, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I am so grateful that our children are given this opportunity to learn these basic safety skills and that our community is encouraging bicycling as a safe, fun, and socially responsible way to get around. Anyone interested in childhood obesity, childhood asthma, or traffic congestion should remember that biking improves outcomes for all of these social ills. Anyone who wants our children to grow up on a planet that is habitable might also keep in mind that biking generates zero greenhouse gases. As for safety - it's important to remember that virtually all "bike" accidents involve CARS. More bikes = less traffic, less pollution, fewer accidents. Hooray for biking!

Like this comment
Posted by Samovar
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 12, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Parent/biker is right: I have seen the PAPD pull over people on bikes and cite them for riding on Alma.

But I also see parents on bikes with their children, doing dangerous things like running stopsigns and crossing the street in front of cars, while their children peddle frantically to keep up. I have also seen several parents bikeriding and wearing helmets, however, the children on the bike trailer they are pulling are wearing nothing on their heads!

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