Creating a Walk/Bike Culture

This year, for the first time, biking to school is a prominent part of the Bryant Elementary yearbook! With a half-page spread, the Bike to Bryant program takes its place among the annual play, the Halloween Prowl, Science Fair, and other school traditions. Why not? Like these other activities, biking to school has become “just one of those things we do” at Bryant, every year and for some, every day. Giving it some recognition is part of creating a culture at school of promoting, celebrating, participating in, and “just doing it” when it comes to walking and biking to school. It’s a nice half page spread; maybe next year the other half can be for “Walking to Bryant!”

Bike to Bryant makes the school yearbook

To really reach a tipping point of families routinely choosing to walk or bike instead of drive to school, it will take a shift in the culture of our schools. A lot of emphasis to date has been on walk or bike to school “events” that promote walking or biking for a day, a week, or a month. These events are great — they create a lot of excitement, introduce families to different modes of transportation they may not have considered, and provide a lot of support for trying them out. They are also huge fun and create a real sense of community around walking and biking. But for many families,  after the event is over, it’s back to the usual modes of getting to and from school.

One goal of the Bike to Bryant program the last couple of years has been to build a biking and walking culture at Bryant to encourage families to create a new and more sustainable daily routine. We’ve been holding at least an occasional event year-round, to help families see that walking and biking can be a daily habitat all year here in Seattle. One especially fun event was a group ride to school on the day before winter break, with lots of folks and bikes dressed in holiday decorations. One parent commented to me that it was the first time she had ever ridden her bike in the rain! And that it wasn’t too bad at all!

We’ve also been working with the school administration to get their more active support for and participation in these programs. This includes having the principal’s office be a strong voice for our bike program to the school community. It helps for families to hear of the value of walking and biking not only from parent organizers, but also directly from the school’s administrative leaders. The principal has a bully pulpit; so why not put it to use! This past year, the administration has talked about the program in the weekly newsletter and the occasional “email blast” to the entire school. And the vice principal came out to direct traffic across NE 65th for one of our Top Pot Doughnut rides! (I’ll cover getting the administration on board in more detail in a future post.)

Another approach we’ve been using is to create more of a sense of permanence and continuity from year to year. We are finding ways to place references to walking and biking in high profile spaces, and to both celebrate and normalize these modes of transportation.

The winning class gets the Bike to Bryant award!

The yearbook page is an example of this, showcasing biking to school in a place where kids and families can’t miss it and where it becomes part of the culture and shared memory of our school. The permanent vinyl Bike to Bryant sign that now hangs outside near the bike racks is another (see previous post). A third example is our annual Bike to Bryant award, which goes to the class with the most bike trips during Bike to School Month. A little friendly competition is a good thing to generate excitement, and by having a physical award we can use from year to year, we’ve also been able to display it prominently in the front hall at school all year long.

Probably the most important part of creating a lasting school culture that supports walking and biking programs is to grow the group of parents who support and help to organize these programs.  Collaborating with a mix of parents with kids in multiple grades — including lower levels like K-3 — is essential to sustaining programs over time.

We know we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of things we can do to create a biking and walking culture. We’re always looking for more ideas of how to keep the excitement going, while also normalizing kid-powered commuting, and helping families incorporate it into their daily routine.

Now hanging prominently in the front hall at Bryant.

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