Best Practices for Biking to School with 9-year-old?

In the fall, after a move and a switch to a new school, I'd like to start biking to school with my 9-year-old.  The trip is about 2.5 miles on flat bicycle boulevards in Berkeley, and we need to be at school at 8am.  We're in decent shape and can ride our bikes fine on the bike path, but my child has very little experience biking on roads (and my experience isn't enormous, and is mostly pre-child).

What should we do to prepare, learn safety measures, and make sure we stay as safe as possible?  I've signed us up for a family cycling workshop with Bike East Bay, but would happily take other classes if they were available.  Should I use the pool noodle trick to ensure cars stay 3 feet away?  Presumably we should plan on reflective vests and front and rear lights -- anything else?  Wheel lights?  Horns vs bells?  What else?

Parent Replies

New responses are no longer being accepted.

I've biked all over Berkeley for years, with and without my kids.  My son has been biking to and from school on his own since age 10 or 11 I think.  I believe you are really overthinking it, especially with the pool noodle thing (???).  Just do a trial run once or twice on the weekend and you'll be fine.  Wear helmets.  Get off and walk through busy intersections.  Stay on bike paths and bike boulevards when possible.  A nine year old can totally handle a short bike ride to school with a parent and will benefit from you having a chill attitude about the whole thing.  Have fun!

Hi! I am one of many parents who bike their kids to Berkeley schools every day. Welcome to the fold! Here are some suggestions:

-- First, bike the route by yourself if you can. Notice things like big intersections or other road hazards you'll have to tell your kid about. It will help you plan.

-- Next, bike the route with your kid. I find myself narrating aloud things that I instinctively do while biking, like, "Okay, on the next block is a major street, so we're going to get ready to stop at that stop sign up ahead." For major intersections, I have my kid stop, and then I get off my bike and walk in the crosswalk when it is safe to do so and wave my kid on. Practice the route as often as you can over the summer so that when school starts it is very comfortable. Time your trips so you'll have an idea how long your commute will take in general.

-- Some BUSD elementary schools have groups of biking families that bike together. My son goes to Malcolm X and we have a monthly "bike train" where a bunch of families in our neighborhood all bike together as one group. In years past, some Sylvia Mendez school families got together and practiced biking common routes to school together. See if your child's school has this. Maybe when school starts, you'll meet some other biking families and start commuting together. One great thing about Berkeley is that there are many biking families. Also, the organization Cycles of Change does periodic bike safety rodeos that help build skills for use on city streets.

-- Besides standard safety equipment, I think the best strategy is making sure you and your child feel as confident/aware as possible, and a lot of that just comes with experience. If there's a particular block or intersection that makes your child nervous, you can always just walk that part on the sidewalk. We do that sometimes. I would advise against the pool noodle thing. I have seen people do it as a statement, but I worry that it could get caught on a passing vehicle or that a passenger would grab it on purpose.

-- If the going gets rough, you may consider getting a tagalong for the back of your bike as a beginner step.

Best of luck and hope to see you out there! Thanks for biking to school! The more families that bike to school, the safer we all are.

Hi - We did this during the summers and early fall (when daylight hours were totally reliable to our commute times of 7:30 am and 6 pm) beginning when our daughter was 7 or 8, in a much car-crazy neighborhood with street riding. (Foothill blvd to Fruitvale Bart). This is how we did it: Daughter was on a trailer bike in the same neighborhood from age 4 to 6, so she had street riding experience on a seat with pedals in the neighborhood for a couple of years before she went solo. Beginning age six she started riding a bike in San Francsico with Wheel Kids summer camps and later with the Presidio YMCA summer kids bike camps. These two programs emphasized smart street safety and skills. When she started riding a solo bike on the commute we made sure that she had a new well fitted helmet with lights, a very well lit bike with wheel, front, and rear lights and reflectors, that she had a LOUD bell, and that she always wore a riders reflective vest. When riding with two parents, she rode between us.  When riding with one parent. My husband preferred to ride ahead of her, I preferred to ride behind her. The East Bay Bike coalition offers street skills and safety classes, these are good. She is starting HS next year, and wants to join the regional HS mountain bike team, and has an idea that she will ride home from school down the (really) big hill, but I'm not loving that idea, in spite of the fact that she's an experienced cyclist. But biking is great exercise and I think it's been great for her confidence. 

Yes to wheel lights, and horns/bells - make sure they can be reached easily while still holding on to the handle bars. Vests are critical I would say, I notice it really helps see bikes when I am the driver in a car. Another thing are those all bike flags we used to use. Lights a MUST if driving in dusk, I use the lights that constantly blink to attract more attention.  Assume no car sees you, particular those who are turning right when you are going straight.

I gather the 3 feet away is for not being hit by a car door suddenly opening. That is great because I wanted to caution you about what I found when I hit the roads in Mountain View after decades of not biking and I think is a new hazard due to smart phones.Often after drivers have parked along a parallel road, even a quiet neighborhood road, they will sit in their car for several minutes checking their phone.  Then they'll open their car door without looking.  Before they would often open the door without looking, but you has seen them finishing their parking and could anticipate this was a car you had to stay clear of. And they were more aware of bikers because they might have just passed you. But now they may have parked minutes before you even ride toward them and you have no idea that someone is sitting in the car and aren't even thinking of what might be on the street. I almost got killed by this a few times, one particular really close call that I was just barely able to avoid. And this was on a street which was a designated cycling street with signs all over it. The driver yelled apologies as I rode off so I guess that is one driver now who might check before she opens her door, but there are a zillion more out there who won't. I thought a lot about how to make myself safe from this but there isn't really an easy way to figure out which cars may have drivers sitting in them and you can't always ride 3 feet away from them. One way I guess would be to cycle slowly so that braking fast is easier and any impact would be less. I was cycling semi-fast since it was a bike street. Also scan ahead at the parked cars to see if anyone is sitting in them.

I hope I didn't discourage you as I think you're idea of biking is great!  I just wanted to let you know this new pitfall that has arisen in the last decade or so which may be new from when you last rode your bike. 

It’s great that you’re committing to teaching your child safe riding skills and commuting by bike! You didn’t say what school you will be riding too, but my kids go to Rosa Parks and several families at the school including mine routinely ride with kids as young as 5 years old, so it’s definitely doable. Reach out to your Safe Routes to School champion to see if your school has a similar group of kids riding in every day and maybe connect with other families to tag along. Other good resources are the Bike East Bay class that you plan to attend and Walk Bike Berkeley where several of us regularly bike with young kids and occasionally organize a kid friendly social ride. You can also reach out to me directly if you want my perspective from personal experience. Just having seen kids ride and in teaching my own kids, the most important not obvious skill that kids need when riding on the road is to ride in a straight line. Kids have a tendency to weave especially when stopping and starting and this is both unpredictable and hazardous to you if you’re riding next to your kid. Other skills to work on are more obvious bike safety skills - stop at all intersections, watch for cars at driveways, never pass cars on the right, etc. The Bike East Bay classes do a great job of teaching those skills. Finally, just practice. The more practice your child gets riding on the street, the better she will get. As far as visibility measures, IKEA makes a great kid sized high visibility vest and we always run a flashing tail light on kid bikes. If it’s even a little dark, we also use headlights and wheel lights. Other important accessories are bike bells for shared use bike paths and for saying hello to other cyclists and a u-lock for securing the bike at your destination. Safe riding!