Bike To School Days in Vermont

by Jamie Hess
(originally published in Upper Valley Parents' Paper, a monthly magazine)

In September 2001, Norwich parents Mary and Bill Bender decided to bike to school with their kids every morning as long as the weather stayed mild. Their route was long -- four miles one way -- but it was all downhill. What kid could resist a four-mile downhill coast? Several other families joined in occasionally. As November approached, sunny mornings gave way to fog and then frost, and the other families dropped out. But the Benders made it all the way to Christmas vacation, bundled in many layers but still rolling.

Inspired by their commitment, we organized a Bike To School Day to share the fun and exercise of bicycling with the whole community. One morning in May 2002, with a police cruiser escort in the lead, dozens of Norwich elementary students and parents biked from Huntley Field to the Marion Cross School a mile away, where volunteers handed out Bike To School certificates and ice cream coupons. By the time the bell rang to start classes, there were 76 bicycles parked on the school grounds -- an all-time record.

Bike To School now happens twice a year, in May and September. Last September almost half the school participated, and we counted 133 bikes at school. Now we're all awaiting our chance to break that record on Tuesday, May 25. As always, the bike parade will start promptly at 7:45 am and roll down Turnpike Road and Main Street to the school grounds. The only difference is that this year the volunteers may have some extra surprises to hand out.

Support from the Police Department is key to Bike To School Day's success. The Norwich Police provide a cruiser escort, divert traffic from the parade route, and guard the major intersections.

"The Norwich Police Department takes pride in its role to keep Bike To School Day safe," says Chief S.J. Soares. "We share the enthusiasm of parents and students and we support the efforts of those who make this great semi-annual event happen."

The Norwich Police and Recreation Departments are co-sponsoring a Bike Rodeo and Safety Check on May 19, to help everyone get their bikes tuned up and ready for Bike To School Day.

Bike To School Day always gets a big boost from the school principal. Three successive principals -- Geoff Fretwell, Paul Moccia and new principal Rob Edson -- have jumped at the chance to join the parade.

"Children who walk or bike to school show improved concentration, enhanced memory, learning and creativity, and improved mood up to 2 hours after exercise," the Heart and Stroke Foundation reports. "Walking and biking to school helps establish healthier lifelong travel habits and helps kids get regular physical activity. It gives them a taste of independence and responsibility, which is an essential part of their mental and emotional development."

To keep the ride safe and enjoyable for all, we just follow a few simple rules:

1. Stay on the right side of the road and don't cross the yellow line.
2. Bike To School is not a race. Let the police cruiser set the pace and avoid passing other cyclists.
3. No more than 3 cyclists abreast.
4. If you need to stop, pull off the pavement first, so nobody hits you from behind.

Many communities around the US organize a Bike To School Day in the spring and a Walk To School Day in the fall. It's an idea that's ready to spread to other Vermont and New Hampshire towns. See you on your bike on May 25!

P.S. Bradford, Vermont is planning its first Bike To School Day on Tuesday, May 18. How about your town?