What started as a parent’s request to add a bicycle rack outside of Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna has become a community-wide effort to increase the number of students walking or biking to school.
“The origins were somewhat personal in that I wanted my kid to be able to lock up her bike at school,” said Vienna resident Jeff Anderson, a father of three who has led the effort in town.
“My oldest was a first-grader [in spring 2008], and I said, ‘Hey, can we get a bike rack, and [the principal] said she wasn’t going to act until the fall. So, like day two in the fall , I asked again,” Anderson said. “The school system is good. If the principal wants a bike rack, they’ll install it…
“That bike rack led me to ask, ‘How do we get more kids to bike to school?’”
In spring 2009, when the weather was nice, Anderson conducted his first “Bike Train,” a bike-to-school program for Wolftrap students.
“We had all ages. Boys and girls. Multiple parents joined us,” he said. “I think we had 40 kids.”
Today, in its fifth year pedaling, Anderson’s “Bike Train” program is a monthly morning occurrence. Students, often accompanied by their parents, meet up at Anderson’s house or along a route through neighborhoods to the school. Anderson leads a pack of children on bikes, giving them safety tips along the way.
“We muster at 8 o’clock and arrive at [the school] around 8:30. School starts at 8:45. It’s a short ride [1.8 miles]. It’s about 20 minutes,” said Anderson. “On average we have probably about 10 kids on the Bike Train. It ebbs and flows. A lot of it has to do with the weather. We’ve biked to school in 18 degrees and 80 degrees.”
In the afternoon, most students either return home as a group or are picked up by a parent.
Wolftrap Principal Teresa Khuluki said, “Mr. Anderson works tirelessly to ensure student safety, while promoting physical fitness. Those students who bike to school arrive energized and ready to start their school day. His program also decreases the amount of cars in our kiss-and-ride [student drop-off/pick-up loop], and I often hear him congratulating the students who bike for helping the environment by lessening carbon emissions in Vienna. We are thrilled to have this program at Wolftrap and encourage other schools to start their own bike train.”
Parents attribute Anderson’s drive to the success of the Wolftrap program and the spreading of walking and bicycling to school programs at other area elementary schools.
“Jeff was kind of the only force behind it for a while; but now it’s kind of got a force of its own because the kids look forward to it,” fellow Wolftrap Elementary parent Carl Schlier said. “Being in the Bike Train teaches you skills you might not learn on your own,” Schlier said. “Like when you see a car, the kids yell ‘Car’… They’re more aware.”
Schlier said the Bike Train program also is promoting healthy activity and also is helping students gain confidence in their bicycling skills that will help them maintain healthy habits as adults. Next year, Schlier’s now-sixth-grade son Eric will be graduating from elementary to middle school.
“Next year, my son isn’t going to do it anymore, but I might keep doing it because it’s fun… [Jeff] dresses up like Santa Claus in December. We ride on the snow,” he said. “It has a community aspect. It has a school pride aspect. I think you need to praise Jeff a lot for putting the effort into this.”
As a spin-off to the Bike Train program, Vienna elementary schools have begun to compete against one another in participation contests such as this year’s fifth annual Bike/Walk Challenge from May 6 through 10. For the first time this year, all seven Vienna elementary schools will participate, including Wolftrap, Westbriar, Cunningham Park, Flint Hill, Louise Archer, Marshall Road and Vienna elementary schools.
Parents are talking to parents, Anderson said, which is helping to spread Wolftrap’s Bike Train program to other schools.
“Vienna is actually pretty active. [Schools] all have Safe Routes [to School] coordinators,” said Vienna Elementary parent Sean McCall, who serves as his school’s PTA’s Safe Routes to School Coordinator. Safe Routes to School is a Virginia Department of Transportation program, which provides outreach community meetings to help kick-off local programs as well as help map and coordinate walkable or bikeable routes for children to their schools. VDOT also offered QuickStart mini-grants for the program. Several schools in Fairfax County Public Schools have applied for and received these grants.
Vienna Elementary boasts a successful Walking Wednesdays program. About a third of students, often joined by parents, walk or bike to school every Wednesday, McCall said.
“The Vienna elementary schools have really bought into the Safe Routes to School program,’ McCall said. “The principal said to me… that some of the teachers had commented that the kids were more focused on Wednesdays because they were getting their energy out [in the mornings]. If there’s a parent meeting or a coffee with the principal, they try to do that on Wednesdays. So it’s built into that [Walking Wednesdays].”
Walking Wednesdays has reduced the number of parents sitting in their cars in Vienna Elementary’s kiss-and-ride pick-up and drop-off loop. Instead, parents are coming into the school or hanging out in front of the school talking with other parents.
“When I look at what goes on at schools in the morning — when I was a kid walking to school every day there was a lot of activity, and I think it wasn’t like that for awhile,” McCall said. “I think the legacy, especially in Vienna, is there’s going to be a lot more walking and biking… If you go around Vienna, you’ll see a lot more people out there biking. There are a lot more bike racks around town… There’s a big moment toward being more bike friendly.”
Anderson said he was a bit surprised but excited about how alternatives to riding buses or having parents drive students to school are taking off.
Vienna elementary schools’ efforts have received national attention, including being highlighted in a recent Nike study called “Designed to Move,” which was co-authored by the National Center for Safe Routes to School. Wolftrap and Anderson also were featured on a Nickelodeon spot on bike training for children. Anderson also received accolades from the National Wildlife Federation, a Fairfax County-based national nonprofit focused on promoting environmental education and advocacy issues.
“A lot of this was grassroots and parents getting over their fears. Bikes versus walking scares parents. I understood their fears, but from experience I know bikes are a lot safer… More kids die in cars [wrecks] than on bikes,” Anderson said. “There are a lot more [school programs] bubbling up, incorporating [walking and biking] in their own way.”