Nurturing the Next Generation of NYC Bike Advocates

Mike Dowd is a social studies teacher at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School.

Students from Midwood High School are so interested in biking that they quickly overwhelmed the institutional capacity to teach cycling skills.

Last fall, at the high school where I teach, I was approached by some 12th-grade boys looking to start a cycling club. As a long-time bike activist, I was thrilled to help. But after our first few meetings, problems arose. At our school, seniors finish the day much earlier than I do, and a new semester brought scheduling difficulties. Interest started to drop and the club appeared ready to fold.

I hated to see this happen, so I decided to try to recruit from the younger grades. My hopes weren’t high, as I had never noticed much interest in cycling among our students. But I was quite mistaken. Not only has the club continued to exist, but the enthusiasm it has generated has changed my thinking about how to create a more bike-friendly city. I now believe that promoting youth cycling is a crucial missing component in the movement for livable streets.

Despite my modest recruiting efforts, more than 30 new students attended our club’s next meeting. To my surprise, the vast majority were girls, few were regular cyclists, and many didn’t own a bike or had never learned to ride. But for whatever reason, they seemed interested in the club.

The problem was, I had no idea what to do with these kids and no guidance from the Department of Education as to what was permitted. Over the next few weeks, as I searched for ideas and advice on how to get them on bikes, new students kept coming to our meetings.

Fortunately, I found Bike New York, whose free after-school riding classes in Brooklyn Bridge Park perfectly matched our needs. They offered group riding skills for those who knew how to ride and basic lessons for non-riders.  Even though they were located far away and their classes conflicted with many of our members’ other commitments, we had more than enough students to fill a class.

As I watched nervously the first day, things appeared to be going well. Though the initial drills were fairly simple, the kids seemed excited just to be on bikes. In fact, one girl offered some very high teenage praise, when she whispered to me during a break, “This isn’t as boring as I thought it would be.” Later, as the group returned from a short ride, another girl said, “I’m so glad I joined this club. I haven’t felt this happy in years!” I was bowled over.

As the school year ended, the classes continued with great enthusiasm. I was very proud of our group, especially those who had learned to ride for the first time. Yet the scope of our success was limited. The kids were enthusiastic about riding but couldn’t pursue their interest over the summer. Though they were eager to continue with supervised rides, they weren’t ready to hit the streets on their own, nor did they necessarily own bikes.

Furthermore, as school began this fall, I had to avoid publicizing the club too much. Just through word of mouth, I now have more interested students than Bike New York can accommodate in one class. Students continue to approach me about joining, but I don’t know what to do with them. A few are taking repair classes at Recycle-A-Bicycle, but space there is limited, too. And now that our fall riding classes are over, we have to wait until spring to ride again.

At the same time, our limited successes have given me great hope. I now realize there is a huge latent demand for cycling among young people. If advocates can figure out how to meet this demand, the movement for safer streets will have much broader support.

My students tend to come from communities that are underrepresented in the world of bike advocacy. Most are girls, most are from immigrant families, and most live in southern Brooklyn. Their neighborhoods tend not to have much cycling infrastructure. We need to tend to their interest in riding if we want better cycling conditions to extend throughout the city.

This should not be a daunting task. One potential model is Beat the Streets, a foundation run by former wrestlers that funds middle and high-school wrestling programs in city schools. In just a few years, they’ve turned a sport that barely existed in the city into one with a major presence. A few deep-pocketed cyclists could probably make a similar impact.

But I don’t think we need to rely on private donors to make this happen. The city already has a budget to provide physical education to teenagers. There’s no reason cycling can’t be part of the curriculum. Many schools, short on gym space, already have offsite classes. My school, for instance, offers bowling and billiards at outside locations.

Imagine cycling centers in locations like Floyd Bennett Field and Flushing Meadows Park offering afternoon, weekend, and summer classes. This wouldn’t require anything complex or expensive. Bike New York operates classes using just a large tent for instruction and a few lockers for bike and helmet storage. If the city were willing to pay for instruction, perhaps private money could help fund some of the overhead and supplement the in-school classes with other activities, like group rides.

There’s no doubt that Mayor Bloomberg has been transformative in making our streets safer for biking. But if the mayor wants to cement this legacy, he needs to broaden support for bike infrastructure. The best way to do this would be to nurture the next generation of bike activists, especially in neighborhoods where cycling has yet to take hold. In doing so, he’d be creating a constituency for a greener, healthier city for generations to come. Trust me, our kids are waiting to be engaged.

  • Anonymous

    This post is far and away the most inspiring and exciting livable-streets story I’ve seen in many a moon. Bravo to Mike and your partners at Bike NY!

    Question: what was it that got 30 new students to that key early/initial meeting? Also, how old are they? How many are boys (I know you said the vast majority are/were girls)? And how many agents have approached you for the ultimate book and movie deals? (Just kidding, but maybe not entirely …)

  • Get ’em hooked while they are young. Love it. 

    And I agree, this is a crucial segment for livable streets. 

  • moocow

    I was involved in a similar program with the New York Harbor School on Governor’s Island. Students who had never ridden before learned to ride, and kids who didn’t have access to bikes at all got to ride 2-3 times a week.
    Granted, human teenagers are the only group of humans that seem to ignore that they were riding laps on a deserted, car free island passing world famous vistas of Lower Manhattan, the Statute of Liberty the Queen Mary, (and that crazy angle you get on the East River up to Williamsburg). But they did love it, and it showed them they could do things that were out of the “norm”. They could see bikes were a ticket to freedom, to whimsy, and it could be done without great expense. The end goal of the program I was with, was a 100 mile ride, and telling these 17-18 year olds they just completed something that most adults, most cycling adults don’t do, that smile of pride is unforgettable.
    Congrats on this Midwood program, it sounds amazing and hopefully it and others can take off. I’m not sure of DoE rules, but I bet there are many volunteers that would like to help.

    I wonder if Bike -n- Roll bikes could be put to use on weekdays, in the shoulder seasons.

  • Clarence

    This work by Mike Dowd is one of the most inspiring and awesome stories in NYC right now.  I would love to read monthly or quarterly updates from him on his great program.

  • Joe R.

    A couple of thoughts here:

    1) A big issue for many of these kids is not having a bicycle. On the flip side, lots of people in more affluent parts of the city might have some bicycles sitting in their garage which their kids have long outgrown. Perhaps have volunteers send out flyers asking people to donate unused bikes, and other volunteers picking up the bikes, repairing them as needed.

    2) Although the weather is often a crapshoot, it’s still possible to have good enough days for riding classes even in the dead of winter. Last winter for example was ridiculously mild. So far it looks to be the same this year.

    3) This is one of those programs where a small amount of funding could go a really long way. It would be nice if bicycle riding were among the activities offered at gym. I recall never much participating in gym because all of the activities involved chasing after a ball. I was already riding in first grade and would have loved it if I could cycle during gym.

    Keep up the great work, Mike! Programs like this give me hope for the future.

  • Rosalia L.

    If you need money, check out http://www.ioby.org/ideas. There are a couple of bike projects similar to yours already on the website. Maybe you could incorporate a bike-loan program for your students?

    Amazing article!

  • Mike Dowd

    Thanks for all the nice comments!

    Moocow, do you know if the Harbor School still runs that program?  I’d love to hear how they handle liability issues.

    Responding to CK”s questions, the way I recruited the first group of new kids was to put up flyers asking if they were interested in learning to ride, going on rides, or learning to fix bikes.  I also had a few similar announcements made on the school’s PA system.  I never probed too deeply as to what attracted the kids to these activities.  It seems that they just sounded like fun.

    This group was almost entirely 9th and 10th graders.  Only four were boys, two of whom never returned.  I later learned that these two boys had been expecting to do some more serious riding right away. They were probably younger versions of the cycling enthusiasts who originally approached me about starting the club. 

    One possible theory about the gender disparity is that girls may more attracted to the social aspect of riding in groups.  I also think that they’re more hesitant than the boys to venture out into traffic.  Because of this, many of them, though they knew how to ride coming into the club, hadn’t been on a bike in years.  I think the club was a way for them to experience again some of the fun they had riding as younger kids.

    As for those who didn’t know how to ride, I think the appeal is obvious.  And let me tell you, watching a teenager learn to ride a bike is a truly wonderful experience.

  • Saleen

    Why was my comment deleted? I simply wanted folks to know that there is some seed money available for great city-based youth projects from Citizens Committee. We’ve funded youth-led bicycling projects before too. Oh well.

  • Anonymous

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus Any sane school principal wouldn’t dare put cycling (on streets) as a school-sponsored gym activity. It takes one accident for the school, the PE instructor and the district to be sued the crap out of them. 

  • Joe R.

    @andrelot:disqus Kids shouldn’t be cycling on the streets anyway. They’re legally allowed to ride on the sidewalk, and that’s where it would make sense for the school to allow them to ride. You could have them do laps around the block where the school is located during gym. This way there’s no potential danger crossing intersections.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That changes at age 12 Joe R.  Middle school.  Either they start riding a bicycle on the street, or they stop riding a bicycle altogether.  By killing a few people every now and then, motor vehicles have assured it is the latter.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, you can legally ride on sidewalks until you turn 13. A simple stroke of a pen could change that to 16, or even 18, so you include all of middle school or even high school (although many high schools have large yards which could incorporate a velodrome). In high school you could also start on-road training so people feel comfortable riding on streets by the time they graduate. If we could get people riding regularly all through high school, I suspect many would continue as adults.

  • rnetter

    Hi Mike, We are in Flatbush as well and we offer bike repair classes as well as safety classes for adults and children. Maybe we can team up somehow and learn from each other. Maybe you can join the Flatbush Bike Rescue Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/bikedandy/) and we can talk that way or even set up a meeting. Thanks for all your good work, Rene

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