Nearly a decade ago, Jeffrey Anderson attempted a bike ride to Wolftrap Elementary School with his daughter, Carina, only to be met with a problem.
There was no rack to lock the bikes on.
Anderson asked the school to install a bike rack, which was quickly done. However, he found out that the rack had been taken from another school and wondered why kids there should have to do without.
Thus began a long-term advocacy project for the Anderson family – the centerpiece of which would be a bike train that eventually attracted as many as 70 kids. This was in Virginia’s Fairfax County, a mammoth system with more than 185,000 kids in some 200 schools with 1,600 buses, but still with many kids dropped off by their parents.
The area, explained Anderson at the recent 2017 Youth Bicycle Summit, had “some of the worst traffic in the region, the kiss-and-rides, parents driving their kids to school, is awful, the county Department of Transportation didn’t go after grant money to build sidewalks.”
Both the infrastructure and the culture, in other words, were awful for kids biking and walking to school. A couple of principals even banned bicycles, Anderson said, while others required a contract for kids to bike.
Fortunately, ongoing efforts already existed to change that culture. The Andersons would add their efforts to other groups already working for a better bicycling environment, such as the Fairfax Alliance for Better Bicycling (Fabb) and the Safe Routes to School program. Help from local parents and police cooperation also lightened the load.
The most notable tool the Andersons used was the bicycle train, a monthly foray made by Carina, her parents, other volunteers, and eventually her siblings, Laurel and Eric. They would pick up youngsters monthly along a set path. Carina, “the oldest, was the tip of the spear,” said Anderson. Laurel and Eric would join her over the years – although Eric, the youngest, did go on those early journeys in a bicycle trailer behind his father.
An effort that began with just a few kids and a bit of gumption would eventually blossom to 50 to 70 riders on a regular basis. And the school that began with zero bike racks would soon be blossoming with bicycles, particularly on bike train days, but all across the school year.
Kids as young as 10 were invited to join. The philosophy, explained Jeffrey’s wife, Patty Obermaier, was “don’t leave any kid behind.” The group dealt with flat tires and “at one point” the route was “eight miles with hills,” but they pedaled on. With each train, the leaders were careful to instruct the kids on basic safety rules, such as staying to the right and stopping at stop signs.
Anderson explained that liability concerns can be overblown, especially if a bike train is done with care and attention to detail. Since suits have to show negligence, the best antidote is careful preparation.
Over its eight years of existence, the bike train has had only two minor crashes and missed only two months due to extreme weather. Part of the sterling record is also due to Obermaier taking the caboose, watching for straying kids and mechanical difficulties, and carrying heavy back-packs in her trailer. If someone fell, “the kids taught me get up, try again. I was always amazed at the willingness and the spirit to keep trying.”
In September 2012, the bicycle train even made it onto national television for Nickelodeon’s Worldwide Day of Play, which highlights kids breaking away from their video screens to have fun the old-fashioned way, outdoors and active.
Beyond the bike train, the Andersons and other activists worked on such issues as “more bike lanes, bike parking, we advocated for a bicycle master plan” and “hiring a full-time bike program manager.”
The activism eventually led to a new school policy so that “it was the parents’ decision how the kids got to school.” Their efforts even flipped a couple of principals who had previously opposed bicycling. Instead of passive resisters, schools became active participants enabling healthy outdoor activities.
However, all good things must come to an end. The Andersons retired from leading the bike trailer in June. Yet they’ve already found replacement leaders and the tradition itself will continue. The family has proved that local advocacy works – although it takes tenacity and help.
Photo is (left to right): Laurel Anderson, Carina Anderson, Patty Obermaier, Eric Anderson, and Jeffrey Anderson.