Robert Petrone and his three children roll up to the first intersection of their morning commute. All four are riding bikes and wearing safety vests and helmets. Petrone is alongside his youngest, Elizabeth, 6, who sets the pace. The others, ages 8 and 9, trail behind in single file. “One… two… three… stop,” Petrone commands.
They continue down the Pine Street bike lane, slowing traffic and drawing amused stares from pedestrians. Then they proceed up the sidewalk on Juniper Street to the District Attorney’s office on South Penn Square, where Petrone works.
The family has taken this route before. Rather than hire a sitter, Petrone brings his children to work during the two weeks between summer camp and the school year. They began taking this trip by bike in 2012, after Petrone spent hours teaching his two oldest how to ride in the streets.
“I was extremely worried with respect to how motorists, how pedestrians were going to treat us,” Petrone says. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to monitor three small cyclists on my own.”
Family bike commutes are hardly a common sight in Center City. Petrone, however, is not alone in trying to familiarize his children with Philadelphia’s bike network as early as possible. Parents throughout the city, from lawyers to stay-at-homes, are attempting to graduate their children from parks and backyards to actual city streets.
In a city still trying to convince adults to bike on streets dominated by cars, this may seem like an overwhelming task. But through a mix of improvisation, a nascent support system, and their own experience and grit, Philly parents are taking the first steps toward teaching the next generation of urban cyclists.
Improvising a Curriculum
Parents face many of the same problems all cyclists face: Philadelphia’s bike lane network is incomplete and disconnected. Drivers have not fully adapted to sharing the road, and the laws protecting and accommodating cyclists are inadequate, if not unjust.
Parents also face unique problems, such as the inherent physical and cognitive limitations of children.
“Riding a bicycle involves the simultaneous execution of motor skills and cognitive skills,” reads a 2014 report on bicycle safety and education from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “While children are able to perform two tasks at once, they often sacrifice cognitive performance for motor skill performance.”
This means that using a cognitive ability, such as remembering who has the right of way, and a complicated motor skill, such as pedaling and steering, can be difficult for preadolescent children to do simultaneously.
Charles Carmalt, former bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, explains that there is no official policy on child cycling or ordinances restricting where kids can ride — although children under 12 must wear helmets. But he is personally unsure about whether young children are prepared to handle the complexities of the road.
“Are kids really able to make assessed risks?” he asks. “Are they really able to understand what type of hazards are in front of them?”
Every child is different, of course, and without any hard-and-fast rules, parents are coming up with their own approaches to cycling education that reflect unique parenting styles as well the needs and abilities of their kids.
Emanuela Villa Kaufer of Center City has been teaching her son to bike since he was three years old. Now 5, he is allowed to ride in bike lanes with Kaufer or her husband nearby. Kaufer says she understands the risk, but believes that exposing children to dangerous situations is an important part of their development.
“Of course there is a bit of fear of the unexpected — of what depends on others and not on us or our kid,” she says. “But this is true for everything a kid has to learn to do.” During a cool summer evening, Kaufer and her son lived out this tension when he made a mistake, crossing Spruce Street rather than turning into the bike lane and momentarily stranding himself on the other side of the road as cars sped by.
Marni Duffy of South Kensington has taken a different approach with her three children, each of whom is no older than 10. She uses the sidewalks to teach them how to ride and refuses to let them onto the street, even if bike lanes are available, until the emergence of what she calls a more “complete system.”
“A complete system,” Duffy says, “would be protected bike lanes and clear infrastructure with better laws governing the road.”
“Of course there is a bit of fear of the unexpected. But this is true for everything a kid has to learn to do.”
Duffy has not let what she considers the shortcomings of the city’s bike network stop her from teaching her children how to cycle on its streets. “I slowly came up with a ‘curriculum’ that I used to teach all of them,” she says. “A set of clear verbal cues and rules of the road that all are to follow if they want bike privileges.” Although, she admits, much of her curriculum has been “ad-libbed” as her children have developed their abilities.
Petrone, too, had to improvise a kind of methodology before the family bike commute became possible. His commands are very specific and repeated three times. He rides ahead to block driveways and side streets, and uses countdowns to prepare his kids for their next action. He also only lets them ride on streets with bike lanes.
“They don’t have the life experience to intuit what they have to do,” Petrone says. “So you have to give them all the instructions.”
Kaufer, Duffy and Petrone each stressed that much of the education is done verbally, and often not even while the child is cycling.
“The road education started before our son could bike,” Kaufer says. “We’ve always stressed lights while crossing the street, pointed out road signs, mentioned traffic rules, etcetera. This was done as we were walking, driving and especially biking, with him in a bike seat.”
Julian and Susan DeAngelus of Northern Liberties have their own mix of techniques for teaching their 9-year-old daughter Francesca, including clear verbal communication of the rules of the road. But they also stress the importance of common sense and experience.
“There are certain things you teach them because you’ve been through that experience,” Julian says. Examples include looking out for car doors and trolley tracks. But after a year of riding on the streets with his daughter, Julian adds, he has come to trust her instincts. Now the advice is more straightforward.
Susan lays it out: “No headphones, look ahead for potential potholes or situations, try new routes, and enjoy the ride.”
A Growing Support Network
The City of Philadelphia does not currently have any cycling programs targeted at parents and their children.
“A lot of our work so far is focused on adult cyclists,” says Carmalt, who has worked for six years on cycling and pedestrian issues for the City. He adds that children specifically have not been a major focus in terms of infrastructure. Recent additions to Philly’s bike network — such as sharrows, where the cyclist is encouraged to take the center of the lane — reflect this bias toward adults.
“I have a feeling that their skills are going to be up to par. But the question is, will the environment be up to par?”
The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and volunteer-run groups such as Kidical Mass, a network of parents who hold periodic group rides for themselves and their children, are trying to fill the gap in support services by building a community around cycling education and training.
Kidical Mass — a play on Critical Mass, the politically tinged mass bike ride held in cities around the world — offers parents a chance to bike with their children with the added safety of a group. Parents who attend these rides gather online through an active Facebook group that shares tips, concerns and information about upcoming events and programs.
The Safe Routes Philly program, launched by the Bicycle Coalition in 2010, has worked to introduce a cycling education curriculum in fifth grade classes around the city. It also organizes ride-to-school events and has worked directly with parents and teachers to encourage safe riding. Over the last four years, the Coalition brought the program to 132 schools. Carmalt notes that the city has helped secure state and federal grants for the program.
Megan Rosenbach, education director for the Coalition, says she has found through her work that “very little structure came with a whole lot of compliance” in terms of students cycling safely.
Philadelphia’s streets have a long way to go before most parents would even consider letting their children ride anywhere but sidewalks, parks or designated trails. Many are awaiting improvements in the infrastructure, but also in the culture at large and in support networks for cyclists. For Petrone, a longtime cyclist himself, the key issue is whether all these factors will improve together.
“I have a feeling that their skills are going to be up to par,” he says about his children. “But the question is, will the environment be up to par?”
Neither the City nor the various organizations working on this issue have explicitly addressed whether the private education provided by parents should be more structured. For now, at least, the scattered Philadelphia parents cycling with their children are shaping their own education programs — one ride, one lesson at a time. ◆