By Hannah Bahn
What is the best way to cultivate a bike-friendly community? “Start them young,” says Bike NWA. Since 1999, Bike NWA has been working to make Northwest Arkansas a more cycling-friendly region by supporting the work of local bike organizations and advocating for better bike infrastructure and bike-friendly policies. According to the Arkansas-based nonprofit, bike-friendly communities require bike-friendly cultures and what better way to shift the culture of a car-centric region than by fostering an awareness-of and love-for bicycling in the area’s children?
To make this vision a reality, Bike NWA has spent the past many years working in schools to bring biking to young people. The organization first began working in education in 2009, thanks to a grant funded by the national organization Safe Routes to School. With these funds, the nonprofit purchased a fleet of forty bikes for Fayetteville Public Schools that were stationed at each elementary school in the district for two weeks during the school year. While the bikes were on campus, every third, fourth and fifth grader participated in a bike education program through their physical education course. All students also received a helmet that they could take home with them.
Bike NWA next partnered with the Bentonville Public Schools in 2012, where they purchased a fleet of 30-40 bikes for each school, all of which would remain on their campuses on a permanent basis, and expanded their curriculum to serve students in grades third through twelfth. This shift from a rotating bike fleet to one that permanently lives on each school’s campus allowed for far more extensive education and great collaborations between math, science and physical education courses. The organization later instituted similar permanent fleets in all of Fayetteville and Springdale’s public schools (500 and 800 bikes, respectively) and in four of Rogers’ schools.
Using Bike NWA’s extensive curriculum, students in Northwest Arkansas schools now learn how to ride a bike safely, navigating around people and other obstacles, and how to follow the rules of the road. Bike NWA staff offer additional in-person support in schools, as well, where they teach about awareness, appropriate behavior and gear, and why it is important to never assume that drivers can see us. These lessons prepare young people to be safe riders, walkers, and future drivers.
This spring Bike NWA will build on their previous work in schools, when they partner with Thaden School in Bentonville, Arkansas, to introduce students to bike advocacy work. The new independent school’s students will work in partnership with Bike NWA to advocate for more bike-friendly infrastructure and policies in the region. This course will move beyond safety curriculum, instead challenging students to consider what broader structural changes can facilitate a more bike-friendly community. Students will have opportunities to partner with the organization on a range of projects from bike lane pilot projects and Open Street events to developing a scorecard to chart the progress of cities seeking to become more bike friendly and convening local advocates in planning meetings. This partnership represents a great extension of the organization’s work in schools, allowing Bike NWA to more closely involve young people in directly helping to create a more bike-friendly Northwest Arkansas.
Asked what they would like to see going forward, Executive Director Paxton Roberts said that if he could wave a magic wand, he would start exposing students to cycling as early as kindergarten using balance bikes. The staff at Bike NWA all firmly believe that if you start introducing children to bicycling at a younger age, they will grow up on a bike, and it will become a part of their everyday life. This, in turn, can encourage them to become advocates for a bike-friendly community and to be more aware as both a biker and driver. Along with this, Paxton wishes that more schools would have opportunities to have fleets of bikes on their campus, so that biking can become a more integral part of schools’ curricula.
Bike NWA believes that the presence of bikes in childrens’ lives will be two fold: it will help raise a generation of bike-friendly, bike-aware citizens and, hopefully, it will help to foster a better bike culture currently, as children are often best suited to educate their parents and inspire change. Shifting a car-centric culture, one in which people assume that a car is the way to get around is not easy. But introducing young people to alternatives at a younger age and giving them the tools to walk or bike safely can make a big difference. Bike NWA is leading the charge in Arkansas to bring biking to our schools.
For those looking to support biking in schools, Bike NWA says that schools are always in need of volunteers, as getting thirty-to-forty kids on bikes in a one-hour P.E. class is a big task. Schools are also encouraged to contact the organization if they would like to bring the bike curriculum to their school.