Catching up: Round 2

You might have heard about the east Tennessee mom who was threatened with arrest on charges of child endangerment for allowing her 10-year-old daughter to smoke cigarettes and bring vodka to school in her lunch thermos ride her bike to school.  The story appears to have broken on Bike Walk Tennessee‘s blog. (Here’s a follow-up post from the same source.)

Then the story was picked up by Bike Portland’s wonderful blog and a couple of other sources.  The local newspaper reported that the issue had been resolved, a matter that the mother disputes.  The officers in question also claim that “no one has ever told this child she could not ride her bike,” a claim that also appears to be in dispute.  (You can read the full police report here.)

The girl in question had been kicked off her bus for bad behavior – perhaps she was advocating cycling to her seatmate? – and after consulting with her mom and taking a bike safety course, was allowed to bike to her school, which she soon grew to love.  The officer in question observed the girl biking in traffic near a bus and some cars and decided that it was an unsafe situation.  (Never mind that the best way to improve safety for cyclists is not to ban them from the road, but to accept them and create facilities to encourage safe biking and respectful driving.)  That was when the officer paid and visit to the girl’s mother and initiated a Child Protective Services report.  And here we are.

Apparently it is not uncommon for school kids to be forbidden from biking to school.  I remember when I was growing up in west Knoxville wishing that I could bike from my home to school. I knew of a few backyard-short-cuts that could get me part of the way there, but Knoxville, laid out as it is, with one primary east-west corridor, offered few safe routes for young ones to bike around town, outside of their respective neighborhoods.  (I don’t know if Knoxville has changed in the past few years; the time period I’m speaking of here was the early 1980s.)  But given the rampant problem that is childhood obesity – to put this in perspective, when I typed “childhood” into the Google search bar in my browser, “childhood obesity” was the first result that appeared; not “childhood” by itself, or even “childhood games” or someone nice like that, but “childhood obesity” – it seems a little shortsighted to deliberately limit physical activity for our young ones.

I have no doubt that the officer was well-intentioned in his actions, and that everyone involved in this debacle is legitimately concerned about this girl’s safety.  If one is not used to seeing cyclists using streets that they have every right to use, I imagine it could be a little shocking to see a girl biking to school.  But is her biking really the problem?  Is her mother really a bad parent for allowing her daughter to ride a bike on what appears to be mostly residential streets?  Yes, cars and buses also use these streets, but if any roads are to be shared among all users, shouldn’t it be these?

I would put forth that the real problem is two-fold.  One, parents today appear to be far less tolerant of risk when it comes to their children than they were even in my youth.  I never ever owned a bike helmet or any protective gear when I was a kid, and while I rode almost entirely on safe residential streets with little traffic, it doesn’t always take a car to cause an accident.  I probably still have scars on my knees from all the spills I took.  Today, I see hardly a child without a bike helmet.  This is of course good, but concerns about safety can be taken too far.

The other and more important issue here is that cycling continues to be marginalized behavior.  Sure, many cities have made great strides in improving cyclist safety and building facilities for bikes.  This is great.  But this is in the face of an ever-greater penetration of the internal combustion engine into our lives and public policies.  Funding for cycling facilities continues to be tenuous and regarded as optional, or frivolous.  Cyclists continue to fight for respect and equal access to the roads, even in pro-cycling regions like Portland.

We’ve seen this here in Memphis, with the continued fight over bike lanes on Madison Avenue.  Cyclists are (wrongly) perceived as being bad for business or as not having a legitimate place on our roads.  It remains to be seen how this particular issue will be resolved, but for the time being, cyclists of all ages will continue to have an uphill battle (or ride) in claiming their rightful place on the streets.

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