by Jodie Van Horn
Grace Malizia is up early working on an assignment.
“Mama,” Grace looks up at her mother, “How do you spell arena?”
Grace is seven. In her first grade class at Spanish immersion school, she is learning about maps. On this particular morning, she is labeling important geographical features on her atlas of the Precita Park playground. First a swing, then the sand.
But there is one route for which Grace needs no map, and that’s her bike ride to school.
Grace’s parents have chaperoned her daily trip to school by bicycle since she began kindergarten at Marshall Elementary. Xavier, Grace’s two year-old brother, is too little for his own set of wheels, but he seems happy to be along for the ride.
David, Grace’s dad, earned his bicycling wings early as well. As a youngster he had a newspaper route for the Baltimore Sun, making deliveries by bike, and he hasn’t stopped riding since. He now works at a school in Potrero Hill, and it’s a good thing he no longer has newspapers to haul because he climbs up there each morning by bicycle from their home on the flats of Cesar Chavez Street.
Grace’s mom, Brook Broughton, used to be a professional dancer at the San Francisco Ballet. She’s glad to be able to do more biking now that her legs aren’t like Jell-o every day at the end of a rigorous dance workout.
The whole family gears up for their respective commutes together, strapping on helmets, zipping jackets, and securing backpacks. Then Brook, Grace and Xavier bid farewell to David before they set off in different directions.
Brook rides with both of the kids to Grace’s school. Xavier perches on a toddler’s bike seat mounted on Brook’s bicycle, and Grace rides her own purple Magna, which they found at Thrift Town, a second-hand store on Mission Street, for only $3 (it was half off).
Because Grace is so small, she legally rides on the sidewalk. They take a mellow route through the Mission neighborhood down Harrison Street, where the sidewalk is very wide and quiet in the mornings. There are a few other kids from Grace’s school along their route, and once in a while they band together, a gang of miniature bikers growing in numbers as they migrate toward the school.
“I totally think that being able to bike in the city improves our quality of living,” Brook says. “I hate putting kids in car seats. I would much rather put them in helmets on the bike.”
Brook and David do own a car as well, which they use in bad weather or when there’s more to haul than their bike trailer can handle.
In reference to their bike commute Brook adds, “I really like it for Grace because it’s pretty fun.” She appreciates that her daughter gets fresh air before starting her school day.
And fun they are clearly having as they make their way down Harrison Street. Grace and Xavier especially light up as they approach their favorite part of the ride.
“The ramp! The ramp!” they exclaim.
The ramp, as the kids call it, is a raised section of sidewalk that leads up a short incline and across a brief plateau, but the real thrill is zipping down the other side back to street level. It’s the only “hill” on their route.
Xavier, on the back of Brook’s bike, is eager to start biking on his own. Back at the house, he had been practicing in the garage on his Skuut, a wooden bike without pedals or training wheels that works like the Flintstone-mobile, propelled by Xavier’s feet. Though he can’t ride his Skuut to school alongside his sister, Brook expects him to start bike commuting when he enters Kindergarten too.
“The thing I like best about biking is that people smile at us,” Brook says. “It seems to make them happy to see us.” As she says this, a crossing guard smiles and waves the trio across the street.
Since they had Grace seven years ago, many more people are biking with their kids, which she says adds to a stronger feeling of safety. “Now it’s common to see kids on bikes,” Brook explains.
She and David are looking forward to even more walking and biking improvements along their route, like bulbouts at crossings, flashing lights in crosswalks, and a separated bike lane down Cesar Chavez Street.
With the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and transportation agencies already working together to help San Francisco streets catch up with the tremendous demands for bike improvements, Grace’s family will surely get their wish, allowing her family to go more places in the city by bike.
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.