Last January, over 200 bicyclists and bicycle advocates gathered in Manhattan to discuss the future of youth bicycle advocacy, education and safety. Not only was the second annual Youth Bike Summit about young people and bikes, most of its participants, including its keynote speaker, were young people themselves. The youth weren’t just swapping stories about their rides, they were engaging in serious policy organizing.
“The Youth Bike Summit is really an incredible indicator of how vast the energy and interest in getting kids on bicycles is,” said Pasqualina Azzarello, co-founder of the summit and executive director of the nonprofit Recycle-a-Bicycle. Her organization operates used bike shops on the Lower East Side, in DUMBO and in Long Island City that teach young people to be bike mechanics, better cyclists and policy advocates.
The City of New York has come a long way since 1987, when Mayor Ed Koch nearly banned cycling in Midtown. Of the city’s 700 miles of bike lanes and paths, 288 were added since 2007, largely propelled by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to encourage New Yorkers to get fit. Given that nearly half of all New York City schoolchildren are overweight, it seems like a push in the right direction for adults to set a better example of fitness, or even for kids to start pedaling themselves.
Since 1995, Dr. Ed Fishkin, medical director at Woodhull Medical Center, has been operating the Kids Ride Club, which now takes kids ages 10-18 — most of whom are from North Brooklyn — on 18 supervised rides a year through the city. The rides start at 8-15 miles and work their way up to longer journeys, some up to 50 miles (by comparison, the unrelated annual “Five Boro Bike Tour” is 40 miles).
“I admit I had an ulterior motive,” said Fishkin. “We were very much into improving the health of the community. When you look at nearly every disease we treat, whether diabetes, high cholesterol, the one thing that’s a real blind spot for physicians around the country is getting communities to be more physically fit.”
However, many of the city’s bike lanes aren’t as well maintained as those that lie in the tourist epicenters of Midtown and Lower Manhattan, and in 2011, 22 cyclists were killed by drivers in New York City. How do you encourage kids to bike while helping them stay safe?
“There is a general safety program which goes for every singe ride. There’s an orientation for each ride where I explain that nobody gets in front of me. I have another co-leader in the back. I have one adult on the side and behind us is a van the hospital supplies,” said Fishkin.
The Kids Ride Club is partnered with Recycle-a-Bicycle, Woodhall Medical Center, and several public schools, and Fishkin says those kinds of partnerships are crucial to making youth cycling work in the city.
“I think there need to be more involvement in the communities and schools to make cycling safe and make parents feel that their kids are safe. There needs to be supervision. I totally understand the awesome responsibility of having a child in my group,” said Fishkin.
The ride programs have become so popular that the Kids Ride Club recently expanded into Western Queens.
Teaching kids to ride safely is just one part of the story. As the Youth Summit evidences, safer youth cycling, and cycling in general, means working hard to advocate for better bike infrastructure. That’s where the organizational partnerships have come into play.
Recycle a Bicycle has a lengthy list of partners, from Transportation Alternatives to public schools to bike shops, that help it operate the Kids Ride Club, create youth employment opportunities and run a program where kids can earn a free bike in exchange for learning to fix old, donated bikes. The idea that kids themselves can actually take on leadership roles, can create their own empowerment through cycling, is growing.
The two-year-old organization Local Spokes is one of the best examples of that movement toward personal empowerment among youth cyclists.
The coalition is composed of Recycle-a-Bicycle and nine other Chinatown and Lower East Side community organizations, but uses youth ambassadors to engage with their community about its perspectives on cycling, teaching other kids to ride and advocating for community-based cycling infrastructure.
“The Youth Ambassador Program works with 10 teams and it introduces them to the basic principles of urban planning, public space, community organizing, gentrification, bicycle culture and teaches these basic principles through bike riding,” said Azzarello. “Through their work the students have led community bike tours throughout the Lower East Side and Chinatown. The youth essentially become educators and stewards of this work.”
Part of that work involved handing out and receiving 1,200 community surveys over the past year to see what the community’s biggest cycling priorities were. The fruits of that work came last July, when Local Spokes released an extensive homegrown action plan for the neighborhood. One of the youth also blogs about their activities and bike rides.
Based on community input the plans calls for the city to help put more bike education programs in schools, more bike racks and lanes, indoor bike parking in NYCHA buildings and hire bike share workers from the neighborhood, among other recommendations.
“The response to Local Spokes has been incredibly positive on many different layers of the community. From residents to elected officials to government agencies what we’ve learned is that investing the time to include communities in a meaningful way is an incredibly efficient and effective approach.
It’s too early to tell how many of those recommendations will be taken up by the city, but some politicians are listening, including Nydia Velazquez (D- NY, 12th District) and Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik Khan, both of whom have attended the Youth Bike Summit.
“It’s a win-win for everyone. It’s a win-win for our children and New York City. If we have more people biking going to school or going to working, we can cut auto emissions that have such an impact in terms of climate change and respiratory and asthma issues that we’re facing in our communities,” Velazquez told Streetfilms.