Story and photos by Drew Myron
“Did you ride your bike to school today?” Megan Ramey asks a group of fifth grade students at Parkdale Elementary.
In a class of 20, just 3 raise their hands.
“Who doesn’t have a bike at home?” she asks.
Half the hands go up.
“If you learn to bike with me, I will get you a free bike,” she says.
The youngsters gasp with excitement.
Safe Routes to Schools is a new program of the Hood River County School District that offers free bicycle instruction and safety activities for elementary and middle school students. Megan is leading the way as program manager.
“I’m really passionate about kids walking, rolling and biking to school, giving them childhood independence, health and a sense of place,” Megan says.
Safe Routes to Schools is a national effort that encourages walking and bicycling to school through safety education, infrastructure improvements and community involvement.
Established locally in 2022, the program is funded by a variety of grants from the Oregon Department of Transportation, along with partnerships with the city of Hood River, Hood River County and the Hood River County School District.
The program engages students throughout the school district. From Cascade Locks to Hood River and the Hood River Valley, youngsters are getting active and gaining skills through learn- to-bike classes, bike safety rodeos, bike trains, walk-and-roll-to- school days and after-school bicycle clubs.
“There is almost nothing as rewarding as watching a kid learn how to ride or pedal a bike for the first time,” says Megan, noting that students learn agility, balance, bicycle laws, hand signals and cycling etiquette. “This program works.”
While learning to ride a bike may be a rite of passage for some, wandering the neighborhood on two wheels is a luxury many children don’t experience.
The reasons are varied. Rural areas often lack safe paths for children to ride. Economic hardship can be a barrier to bicycle ownership. Working parents are stretched for time and opportunity to teach their children, and they may not have the skills themselves. In addition, over generations a cultural shift has emphasized car transport over physical activity as parents shuttle children
to school, activities and appointments.
As a result, many children don’t know how to bike and don’t have access to bikes. Riding is not part of the everyday life it may have been for adults who fondly recall a childhood exploring neighborhoods on foot or bike. “We have both privileged and needy in this community,” Megan says.
“If having a bike at home is your barrier, I want to vanish that.”
To bridge the need, Safe Routes to School partners with Anson’s Bike
Buddies, a nonprofit program that refurbishes used bicycles and offers them at no cost to children and families in need. The program has provided more than 100 free bikes for the school program.
The Safe Routes program works closely with physical education teachers, incorporating bicycle education as part of the class curriculum.
“There are so many kids that don’t have access to bikes,” says Marge Gale, physical education teacher at Parkdale Elementary. “It warms my heart to see bikes in kids’ hands. It’s hard out here in the rural areas where there aren’t many bike paths or places for kids to ride safely. This experience could change lives. It’s pretty fantastic.”
Along with basic bike education, the program equips students with crucial safety training. Bicycle safety is paramount.
In Odell, for example, many students live less than a mile from school, but a highway separates the school from the neighborhoods. With few sidewalks or paved paths, biking and walking to school can be challenging.
Bike trains and parades have been popular ways to get students comfortable. Like a school bus with its daily route and schedule, a group of cyclists—comprised of students, parents and teachers—form a bike train to pick up students as they wind through neighborhoods.
The concept has been expanded to include walkers, scooters and other modes of self-powered transportation. In Parkdale recently, Walk & Roll to School drew nearly 50 people.
“Parents feel safer letting their kids ride to school in the company of other parents,” Megan says. “Kids get to feel the joy of riding to school, and they gain valuable riding etiquette skills while learning the safest routes.”
Pedaling is powerful, advocates note. Biking offers health benefits, reduces car accidents and injuries, and reduces air pollution. Outdoor activity has been tied to academic achievement, as well as mental and emotional stability, according to a study conducted by the World Health Organization. Providing a safe environment for active commuting, rather than being driven to school or taking public transportation, is a key component.
“I’m definitely happier when I’m walking or biking,” says Megan, who sees a similar response in children. “We’re forming lifelong behavioral attachments to active transportation.”
For 10-year-old Page Nesbitt of Parkdale, the benefits of biking are more immediate.
“This is so fun,” she says, smiling as she pedals