« Rails with Trails | Main | 10 for Tuesday - 4/18/06 »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The decrease in kids riding their bikes to school has nothing to do with the accessibility of bike routes, lack of bus drivers or childhood obesity. Parents have simply become more safety conscious. When parents watch the nightly fear mongering dealt out by their local news, they perceive only vulnerability of their own children – worries of gridlock and greenhouse gas disappear. I don’t know whether child abductions have increased since the 1970s, but without a doubt the media coverage of such abductions has skyrocketed.

Not just safety conscious, but restrictive. I guess the range a child is allowed to venture on his/her own is something like 1/8 of what it was in the 1970s. As a child in Detroit, I would bike or walk wherever. Things aren't like that today.

Article from the Wall Street Journal

Copyright, The Wall Street Journal
September 9, 1996

The Bicycle Loses Ground as
a Symbol of Childhood Liberty
Getting a bike used to be a kid's passport to freedom. Those who grew up in the decades through the 1970s fondly recall long summer days spent on their bikes, when they would reappear at home only to eat and sleep. No more. Many parents, even ones in quiet suburbs or serene middle-American towns like Greeley, Colo., simply don't allow their children to ride far without supervision.
GREELEY, Colo. -- In July, 12-year-old Cody Gillenwater and his father rode a tandem bicycle 925 miles to Phoenix. A few weeks later, his mother wouldn't let him bike by himself to a tennis class five miles from his house.
"I think about the traffic, and I think about my kid getting snatched," says Marty Gillenwater, who doesn't want her only child to become another "face on the milk carton."

Getting a bike used to be a kid's passport to freedom. Those who grew up in the decades through the 1970s fondly recall long summer days spent on their bikes, when they would reappear at home only to eat and sleep. No more. Many parents, even ones in quiet suburbs or serene middle-American towns like Greeley, simply don't allow their children to ride far without supervision.

"I wish I could go wherever I want," says seven-year-old Alexis Fleming of the Dallas suburb of Richardson, Texas, as she sits in her living room, her father's arms around her. The only time Alexis can bike around her neighborhood is when her family goes on walks. Then she must stay on the sidewalk and go no more than two houses in front of her parents. Wistfully, she wishes aloud that she could ride all the way to the end of the block, then back to the house. "I'd stop at the stop sign," she promises.

Spoken Fears
What has put the brakes on Alexis and other kids, parents say, is a nagging fear of the potential dangers lurking outside their front yards. Heavier traffic and even the passage of helmet laws are constant reminders of the perils on the roads. Highly publicized kidnappings have only upped the paranoia. The irony of this isn't lost on a generation of parents who themselves pushed the boundaries of independence but don't feel comfortable with their kids doing the same.
"I don't protect them from risks," explains Alexis's father, Steve Fleming, of his four children. "I just provide an atmosphere that's more controlled."

So now, biking is yielding to more controllable surrogates -- supervised play groups, structured extracurricular classes and an explosion of organized sports -- that leave children with considerably less free time for discovering the world on their own. Alexis and her three siblings, for example, are kept busy with a schedule that includes not merely the old standard, baseball, but also swimming, tae kwon do and gymnastics. Alexis gets the dance lessons her mother never got as a child, while brother Zach, 8, can already do a double flip off the diving board.

Still, Mr. Fleming looks back with longing on his own childhood in Colorado Springs, when he could ride wherever he wanted by the age of six. "I was a man of the world," he says.

Flattening Sales
Bike makers, too, have felt a noticeable shift. Sales of 20-inch bikes, those typically bought for children eight to 10, dropped to three million last year, down from 4.2 million in 1993 and a peak of 5.2 million in 1987. Some of this is attributable to rising competition from in-line skates and video games, but parental curbs on how kids use bikes is unquestionably a factor, says Bill Smith, vice president of marketing for Huffy Bicycles unit of Huffy Corp. His nine-year-old son has tough restrictions on where he can ride his bike. "I had more freedom when I grew up in the Bronx than my son does today in Dayton, Ohio," Mr. Smith observes.
Parental fears -- and dwindling use -- do have an upside. Last year, 242 children five to 14 died in bike accidents, a decrease of 59% from 1975, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The decline came despite a 14% increase in the number of children in that age group since 1986.

Meanwhile, though the child population has been steadily rising, the number of children kidnapped, murdered or ransomed by strangers has remained constant at about 300 a year during the past 15 years -- a statistic that doesn't make parents feel any better. "I don't think there's any question that public awareness of the issue is rising," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Association for Missing and Exploited Children.

Fighting the Tide
Some parents try to put aside their fears, but it isn't easy. Jill Parker of North Potomac, Md., allows her nine-year-old twin boys to ride around a bike path in the subdivision where they live. "They need to know they can do things without restrictions," she says. Still, Ms. Parker admits she worries every time the boys pedal off. "I'm scared to death about weirdos being out there and grabbing the kids," she says.
Greeley, a tree-lined farm town of 60,000 about 40 miles north of Denver, seems about as far from those kinds of urban nightmares as a place could be. But Sgt. John Gates of the Greeley Police Department says the anxiety cuts across class lines. He says he sees fewer kids riding bikes on the affluent west side of Greeley than when he was growing up there, but adds that bike riding is even less common in the working-class east side.

Some worry that the loss of independence can carry a price, cutting into a child's confidence and willingness to venture into new territory. Linda Robbins, who rarely allows her nine- and 11-year-old daughters to ride more than a block or two from their Greeley home, has noticed that her girls often have difficulty making decisions. She wonders whether there is a connection. "They ask me really simple things," she says. " 'What should I wear to school today? What movie should I watch?' "

It can take just one incident to alarm a town, and Greeley had one this spring when a 12-year-old schoolmate of Cody Gillenwater's was struck by a car and killed after biking through a stop sign. Cody was so bothered by the death that it took him weeks before he was willing to ride past the accident site on his regular bike rides with his father, Bill. Once there, Mr. Gillenwater made a point of talking about how the accident could have been avoided.

Both the Gillenwater parents are passionate recreational bike riders -- the family owns nine bicycles -- and they often ride with Cody. At the same time, their own experiences have made them more aware of the dangers their son faces as a solo cyclist. Three years ago, for example, Mrs. Gillenwater was riding by herself in the country outside Greeley when a man standing by the roadside exposed himself to her. While Mrs. Gillenwater laughs about the incident now, it also makes her aware how vulnerable her slender 5-foot-2-inch son could be.

"He's a kid still," she says. "He likes people."

Cody only shrugs when asked about his mom's bike rules. "Sometimes it does bother me," he says. "But drivers are not aware of what they're doing nowadays."

Still, Mrs. Gillenwater goes the extra mile to keep Cody riding. Every morning she takes Cody and his bike by car across a busy highway to the elementary school where she works as a librarian. Then, Cody puts on his helmet and rides two miles to middle school with his friends.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Banner design by creativecouchdesigns.com

City Paper's Best Local Bike Blog 2009


 Subscribe in a reader