Friday, October 28, 2011

Getting Kids to Bike to School

A very interesting post appeared on the Freakonomics blog a couple days ago about how to get kids to walk or bike to school. They discussed the findings of an academic paper that studied the effects of a program that gave students the chance to win a prize (an incentive, or bribe, if you will) for riding their bike to school.
A new working paper examines a program in Boulder, Colorado that attempted to incentivize kids to bike or walk to school over a span of several years. The program began with a $10 cash prize for the first two years, but then switched over to a $10 bike store coupon thereafter. One lucky student who rode and walked to school every day during a “prize period” won the coupon.
...biking and walking to school increased 16 percent during the prize period. 
In the Boulder experiment, children who won the lottery were excluded from winning future lotteries, but remained actively commuting to school for the next two weeks. After this, however, they went back to normal. Problematically, the 16 percent increase in walking and biking did not exist during non-prize-periods.  
It's an area ripe for research and greater understanding, especially since, as they point out, "[f]rom 1969 to 2001, the percentage of self-commuters [to school, i.e., walkers and bikers] dropped from 41 percent to 13 percent."
There are a lot of factors at play in the decline, I'm guessing. Among them are the intensification of the suburban sprawl problem, the shift of populations to those sprawling suburbs. Why is that a problem? Greater distances between school and home, a confusing street system of cul-de-sacs lacking the connectivity of the more traditional urban grid pattern, and an over-reliance on major, high-speed arterial roads unfriendly to cycling (even by adults).

There is also irrational fear on the part of many parents, cycling-unfriendly local law enforcement and school administrators.

In any event, the research findings were interesting. They show that incentives helped to induce the desired behavior. This is far from surprising, but it begs the question, what else can be done to incentivize cycling behavior? Providing the infrastructure for it to happen safely is one way. Changing attitudes and behavior is another, through efforts like Michelle Obama's Let's Move program.

Short of cycling and walking, I'm gonna put on my old (OK, 30-something) geezer hat and wax poetic about how things were "in my day", when you rode the bus to school if you were too far away to walk or bike. I don't understand what happened in the last twenty years to make schools look like this...

...but it's gotta change.

1 comment:

  1. While I agree that there is an urban planning aspect to this problem, I think the biggest issue, is one of the ones you mentioned most briefly: parental fears.

    One of those fears, the fear of reckless drivers, is very real and rational. Most drivers are either not aware of or blately ignore bicycle safety laws. As you've written about previously on this blog, you a cyclist with lots of experience, have been in dangerous situations because of careless drivers. A child is naturally less cautious and aware and could be in more danger.

    Another parental fear is that their children will be kidnapped if they ride their bikes to school.
    In this local story they actually recommend that children stop walking or riding their bikes to school. I'll admit, this is a totally irrational fear as rates of abduction (and violent crime in general) have fallen over the past several decades.

    It does seem like the best way to remedy both of thesse problems though is for more kids to walk and ride to school. If more people were walking or cycling, 1) there would be fewer driver on the roads to create hazzards, 2) drivers would learn the laws about road sharing, and 3) there would be more people out and about to discourage abduction. (It would be hard to kidnap a kid with lots of neighbors around.)