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Thursday, May 11, 2006

"Born to Ride?" by Stephen Nunns in the Portland Forecaster: May 10, 2006

It's 8:20 in the morning all over the city, parades of elementary school children pedal their way along didicated bike routes, traversing intersections with the help of crossing guards, making their way to school in time for the morning bell.

This is the scenario that some biking advocates and parents hope to see in place of the next few years.

Currently, the School Department has no official policy about kids riding to school; instead it is left up to individual principals to decide policy on a school-by-school basis. As a result, some schools are examing the idea of letting the kids ride to school.

"I think there's been a confluence of events," School Committee member Stephen Spring said. "First of all, I think there's a growing awareness that there are other weays to get around having to put $30 into your tank every couple of days. And secondly, there are more transportation advocates in positions of power and people are starting to listen to them."

At Hall School, some parents and staff have embarked on a pilot program to encourage kids to ride to school. A new bike rack was installed on May 1. Accord to Rich Veillieux, whose two daughers attend teh school, the rack has been "overfull" since its installation.

"My daughters and I rode to school twice last week," said Veillieux, who is one of the parental advocates and was project director for Healthy Portland. "One day they found it was actually too crowded."

According to Veillieux, there was never a frim policy disallowing bikes, but riding them to school had not been encouraged. Last fall, he and a number of other parents starting speaking to the administration about allowing bikes as an experiment.

"We convinced them that it was the right thing to do." he said. "It relieves the congestion around the school at the start and end of the day and the kids get exercise and a certain amount of freedom."

Parents and otehr advocates are getting assistance from members of Portland Trails, Healthy Portland, and the Portland Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee, who have teamed up to create a Safe Routes to School team.

According to Jaime Parker of Portland Trails, the group is applying for grants to install bike racks, work with Maine Department of Transportation to improve or create safe routes to and froms schools and install road safety programs into schools' curricula.

"Communities should see that not driving kids to school is beneficial to everyone," Parker said. "It's a wholesome, healthy thing to do."

Parker believes parents and school administrators need to rethink their kids' transportation needs. He notes that he lives within a seven-minute waslk to the new East End Community School, the school his two children are slated to attend. Nevertheless, they will still be eligible to be bused to class every day.

"None of us grew up with that," he said. "It's not only a waste of money, but it's coddling. It limits kids' freedom and independence."

Still, advocates like Parker acknowledge that allowing schools to set their own policies makes more sense that trying to institute something throughout the city. The situation is certainly different at Peak Island Elementary - where most kids ride to school even in the dead of winter and cars travel more than 25 mph - than for the kids at Riverton, which is accessed by busy Forest Avenue.

Not everyone is excited about gaggles of third- and forth-graders pedaling their ways to school.

"I would hold my breath with worry," said Dawn Carrigan, principal of Longfellow School. "Can you imagine 2,000 kids riding to school in two one-hour blocks in the morning and afternoon?"

Longfellow does not currently have any policy against biking to school, though Carrigan said it is strongly discouraged, thanks in part to the traffic on Stevens Avenue and because there have been numerous examples of vandalism and theft to bikes left on school grounds.

"I'm a big cheerleader for Portland Trails," she said, "and I'd be interested in hearing their thoughts, but this really is an issue of safety."

Veillieux acknowledges that traffic is an issue for certain schools particularly because of cars that speed through school zones. But he bleives that enforement of traffic laws, and educating motorists should be the key.

"Inevitabley, someone will get hurt," he said. "There is a risk with biking as there is with any physical activity. But what we need to do is make the city safer for biking and not discourage it just because conditions aren't what they should be."

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