By Jodie Van Horn
Tomorrow, April 15, is Bike to School Day in San Francisco. The goal of the event is to encourage kids to safely ride a bicycle to school, accompanied by parents and classmates. And for some kids, this will be the only day of the year that they don helmets, bells, and windbreakers for their morning commute. But not for Hannah and Hugo.
Hannah and Hugo Herschend ride to school practically every day. At just 10 and 7 they already know their bike safety better than many full-grown San Franciscans who pedal to the financial district each morning. Thanks to Jonn.
Jonn is their intrepid dad and the captain of this commuter team, at least on the morning that I accompanied the Herschends to school. He and his wife, Max, take turns chaperoning the a.m. shuffle.
Jonn is polite, laid back, and smiley as he multi-tasks his way through the morning rituals of zipping backpacks, finding jackets, putting on shoes, and coaxing a sleepy Hugo downstairs. He even found a free arm with which to make this blogger an espresso!
School starts at 8:35. It only takes about 10 minutes to get there by bike, and the Herschends have their route from their Noe Valley home to Leonard Flynn Elementary School on Cesar Chavez and Harrison down pat. In fact, they’ve had plenty of conversation about it.
Jonn explains that the most direct route is straight down 26th street, but instead of worry about drivers trying to edge them out while the S.F. Bicycle Coalition works to secure 26th Street bike improvements, Jonn and the fam opt for a quieter and safer, snaking route that flows upstream for two blocks on Precita Avenue. And the kids love it, they tell me, because it has a lot of speed humps.
I ask them about rain, and they seem unfazed. Jonn explains that rain days are like snow days (Jonn grew up in the Ozarks). They gear up, throw on the waterproofing, and, of course, Hannah and Hugo love it. When you’re a kid, there’s simply nothing better than big puddles and some indoor Heads Up 7-up in lieu of recess. Getting soaked is but a state of mind.
Hugo has to be torn away from his keyboard piano where he shows off his mini virtuoso skills. We head down to the garage, and Hannah is the first out of the gate. She knows just what to do as she rolls her new big kid Fuji bike down the driveway. Jonn laughs that she was riding to school with her knees practically touching her ears before the upgrade.
Meanwhile, Jonn saddles up the Dahon Xtracycle, a utilitarian cargo bike that he and Max bought at the S.F. Bicycle Coalition’s Winterfest fundraiser. It’s the perfect packhorse for the Herschends. Carrying two backpacks, a violin, and a big bowl for popcorn that Jonn plans to sneak into Hannah’s classroom for her teacher’s surprise party, the Xtracycle bears a full load. Not to mention Jonn, who pedals, and Hugo, who sits behind him on the rack.
Before we cruise I ask Hannah what her favorite thing about riding to school is. She tells me, “Shifting gears!” Ah, the simple pleasures of cycling.
Now we’re ready to roll. The Herschends take off down the hill, and then it’s arm signals out and a left onto Church Street. Sun on their faces, Jonn and Hannah chat as they ride side by side. Jonn tells me that he and another dad took a YMCA bike safety course and he imparts the lessons to Hannah and Hugo: how cross the Muni tracks at an angle, why it’s important to stop at all stop signs, how to put a foot down, how to read traffic lights…
“Duh, Dad, we know how to read traffic lights!” they exclaim.
There are three families at Flynn that bike commute on a regular basis. Jonn explains that due to the way kids are currently assigned a school through the S.F. Unified School District lottery, there’s no guarantee for a family to be placed within riding distance. One family, he says, comes all the way from the Sunset to this Mission district school. So, they drive.
Hannah, who will head to middle school next year, will likely have to give up her morning cycling routine as well. However, the School District’s Board of Education did step up to endorse Bike to School Day, and a process is underway to more heavily weigh neighborhood schools in the lottery, which would increase the likelihood of families choosing to ride instead of drive.
Safe Routes to School: Steps to a Greener Future, a report prepared for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2008, tells us: If the number of kids who walk and bike to school was restored to 1969 levels, our nation would cut 3.2 billion vehicle miles, 1.5 million tons of CO2, and 89,000 tons of other pollutants annually. This is the equivalent of keeping more than 250,000 cars off the road for a year.
The Herschends are doing their part. And they seem to have fun doing it.
We make it to school after a brisk ride, and our bikes are the only ones around. Hannah locks up to a street sign (the school is talking about adding some bike parking), while Hugo jumps off of the Xtracycle rack, grabs his backpack, and disappears into the throngs of pedestrian arrivals.
Jonn tells me that they used to own two cars, but sold one of them about four years ago. He, having lived in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and now San Francisco, has a long history of urban cycling. And having two kids and all their stuff to schlep hasn’t knocked him off his bike yet. Even groceries are done by bicycle.
As we stand in front of the school chatting, one more family shows up on bikes. Suddenly, Hugo reappears and fishes through the Xtracycle’s luggage for his Giant’s baseball cap.
“Well,” Jonn says, “I gotta find a way to sneak this popcorn bowl into school.”
All in a day’s work for a bike commuter family.