San Franciscans loves bicycling and two of our favorite celebrations — Bike to School Day (Thursday, Apr. 7) and Bike to Work Day (Thursday, May 12) are just around the corner. We’re anticipating a record turnout for each of these popular events. Record numbers of people are biking, especially families and we sat down with this San Francisco family to find out how biking helps them easily get around San Francisco.
by Regina Sinsky
When elephants sense danger, the older members of the troop will protectively surround the youngest pachyderms. Every member of the group contributes to the babies’ safety.
Declan Chan Johnson is his family’s baby elephant. At the age of 5, he’s learning the rules of the road, surrounded by his family force field. They circle Declan on their bikes as he tests his pedaling skills on San Francisco’s bumpy streets.
You just might see him practicing these skills on his way to and from Sunnyside Elementary, where he is in Kindergarten. Declan, like his 16-year-old brother Cameron and 11-year-old sister Úna, commutes to school by bike.
“It isn’t easy to find roads he can ride on,” says his mom, Adrienne Johnson, “but when we find them, we let him go. There’s lots of vocal commands going on — ’stop at the red stop sign, look both ways’ — but he really gets it.”
Adrienne is energetic with a passion for biking. (Her blog is called “Change Your Life: Ride A Bike.”) Her husband is also an enthusiastic bike rider. With all that experience comes a reasoned assessment of traffic safety, and a cautious thumbs-up to their kids commuting to school by bike.
While Adrienne escorts Declan on his bike route, the other two siblings are on their own.
But then, Cameron is not lonely on his commute. It turns out riding bikes is not only convenient and safer for teenagers (biking makes texting or playing Angry Birds while moving a bit more difficult than it is in the car), but it’s also pretty cool.
“If it’s not rainy, the bike parking fills up,” explains Cameron of Balboa High School, where he is a junior. “Security guards are there whenever school is in session, watching over the bikes.” The guards are also watching over the kids as the arrive and leave the school grounds.
When most teenagers rely on a bus schedule or their parents’ demands to “get in the car or we are going to be late,” Cameron is on his own to get to and from class. It’s a small amount of responsibility that goes a long way. Talking with him, you get a sense of his maturity, but his action of biking to and from school on time speaks louder than words.
Úna, in sixth grade at Aptos Middle School, is also in charge of getting herself to and from school. “The bus is a little faster on the way to school, because of a hill, but on hot days I like my bike because I get to go downhill to get home.” Úna started riding by herself in fourth grade.
Those pesky hills, along with busy roads, few bike lanes, and lack of bike lane connectivity, are the family’s biggest commute challenges.
“When you get started commuting by bike, you first try to ride on the same streets you drive your car,” says Adrienne. “That can be terrifying. For example, riding a bike down Fell Street is nuts. It takes patience to find alternate routes, but it’s worth it.” (The Johnson Chan family could challenge your GPS for alternate routes. Their sense of direction and knowledge of San Francisco streets is amazing.)
“Road-warrior dads were the first ones out there transporting kids to school on bikes, but that’s changing,” says Adrienne.
“I’m seeing more and more women with kids on their bikes. Multiple kids, even.”
The family says biking to school and after-school activities (unless it’s too dark outside) could be safer and much more comfortable with separated bikeways. Adrienne feels that riding side by side with her husband and kids should be an option.
There are some small things the family’s schools are doing to make a big difference in helping kids bike more.
“The teachers, some of whom ride to school on bikes, are trying really hard. Úna has teachers that offer to help change flats or broken chains, or temporarily keep her bike inside while it’s raining,” says Adrienne.
Declan’s school, Sunnyside Elementary, is one of 15 schools that host San Francisco’s Safe Routes to School Program to make biking and walking to school safer through incentives (such as Bike to School Day), education (like in-class and experiential lessons on pedestrian safety to second graders and bicycle safety instruction to fourth graders taught by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and YMCA) and safer streets. And Aptos Middle School, where Úna goes, also has an after-school program by the YMCA that teaches bike safety.
The rest of the safety is going to come from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Connecting the City vision for 100 miles of continuous, crosstown bikeways that are safe for everyone, including 5-year-olds like Declan. Safer bikeways will take community support. After all, it takes an entire herd to protect the smallest member.
Join parents and thousands of kids across San Francisco for the third annual Bike to School Day Celebration, Thursday, April 7. For more information, to find out which schools are participating or to volunteer go to sfbiketoschoolday.org.