Sixteenth Way for Dads to Change the World: Ride a bike with your kid to school (or walk or share transportation…)

2Credit: Carlos Pardo

In two days, the nation will pay its taxes. But did you know that April 15 is also Bike to School Day?

I discovered this while writing an article for Mothering about ways parents can help green their schools, due to be published in its Fall back-to-school issue. The people urging families to walk or bike to school normally frame it as a solution to rising rates of childhood obesity: Thirty years ago, reports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of children who lived within a mile of school walked there. Today, that number is 25 percent. In the same period, the number of overweight or obese children has roughly tripled—two trends that the CDC claims are intimately related.

However, in the course of researching the article, I also discovered that driving to school contributes significantly to global warming.

“Nationwide, it’s a big issue,” says Bridget Smith, the mother of twin five-year-old boys and a senior engineer with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Driving to school contributes to “pollution, crowded roadways, and chaos in front of the schools with lots of people dropping off and picking up.” Many crashes occur around schools, says Bridget, and it’s not uncommon for parents hit a child after dropping their own child off.

The solution? “Don’t drive,” says Smith–and help organize other parents to do the same. She and many other engineers and planners argue that one of the best things families can do for their health, their safety, and their environment is to walk or ride a bike. If walking and biking aren’t feasible, the next best thing your family can do is to take the bus or carpool to school.

Jim Heid, father of a five-year-old and principal of the planning consultancy Urban Green, calls sharing school transportation a “game-changer for taking on climate change” that could do more to shrink a city’s carbon footprint than any other realistic course of action.

To start, Smith suggests that parents organize around the annual Bike to School Day (April 15, 2010) as well as Walk to School Day (next on October 5, 2011), which gives parents and kids an opportunity to try alternatives to driving. If safety is a concern, try organizing “bike buses” or “walking buses,” in which a group of bicyclists or pedestrians clump together for visibility along a specific route and timetable. Here’s a video of a group of kids in Orlando, Florida doing just that:

High School Bike Bus from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo.

Looks like fun, doesn’t it? “I hear from people all the time who try it,” says Smith, “and they find it so great that it becomes a habit.” Organizing days to walk or ride to school is also an opportunity to raise awareness about the interrelated issues of global warming and obesity. What’s bad for the planet is often also bad for our bodies and our minds!