In the fall of 2007, a pair of high school students in Santa Monica High School (Samohi), decided to organize their own Bike to School Day. Somewhere between 80 and 100 high school students took part that first year, which is a respectable number for a student-run event with no budget, but nobody could have0for seen what’s happened since.
In 2008, the event doubled in size. In 2009, so many students walked or biked to school, that the school’s bike racks were overflowing not just on what was then called Bike It! day, but everyday and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District vowed better bike facilities. In 2010, Bike It spread to schools throughout Santa Monica and in June the event (the event is held twice annually in the Fall and Spring) had over 3,300 students from thirteen different schools around Santa Monica.
“Since 2007 it’s grown into a bigger success with just about half of the school participating,” explains Charlotte Biren, co-president of the Samohi Solar Alliance, a super-group that is responsible for solar panels warming the school pool and for programming Bike It! . “We’ve also expanded the program into walking, and taking the bus.”
Santa Monica doesn’t have a school bus program, increasing the pressure on parents to drive students to schools, so a Bike to School Day is an important exercise to show parents, and students, what is possible.
“Simply put, the goal is to get people out of their cars,” adds Jenna Perelman, the other Solar Alliance co-president.
100 students is good enough to get the attention of the local school board. 3,300 is enough to get the attention of the President. This summer, the Office of President Barack Obama awarded Biren and Perelman an Official Presidential Commendation for their work programming Bike It!
The story of Bike It! shows what can happen when a group of people take a great idea, a Bike to School Day for their High School, and helped spread it to other local high schools, middle schools and even grade schools. Both Birren and Perelman made personal appearances to talk to students and administrators about the value of bicycling, walking or taking transit to school. While the younger schools obviously needed the full buy in of staff to organize the event, at the high school level most of the burden falls on the students, who are eager to take up the challenge.
“Two years ago, we were most concerned about growing the numbers at Santa Monica High School. When we achieved that, we thought about expanding the numbers throughout the district and community,” Biren writes.
So what is Bike It Day? Simply, it’s a day when students receive extra encouragement to arrive at school without using a car. Bike, walk, take transit, it doesn’t matter. At Samohi, extra racks are brought in, variable message signs provide encouragement, part of the streets connecting the school receive temporary bike lanes and a special breakfast is provided. There is some schwag provided to students, but the biggest incentive to ride is that it’s cool to bike to school, well cooler than usual, to bike to school on Bike It Day.
Sometimes even a small change can have a large impact, Richard McKinnon, a parent of a graduated Samohi student and the Chair of Bike It across the district, spends countless hours working with students to help Bike It to be a success and grow. Standing with Biren, Perelman and myself next to the bike racks at Samohi, he modeled some small bicycle pins they hand out to teachers so they can show their support. The students apparently go wild for them.
Bike It Day doesn’t have to be the same at every school in the district,in fact it’s common for schools in the same area to have different days to Bike It. September 21 is the Samohi Bike It! The two middle schools local to Samohi, Lincoln and John Adams, have tentative dates for October 5th and October 7th respectively.
But neither Biren nor Perelman are content with the status quo for Bike It.
Perelman says the next step is showing students that their choices can make a difference. “Now we’re focused on educating students across the district on climate change and what they can do to help. Biking or walking to school is a simple change that anyone can make.”
So does it make a difference? Does one Bike It Day a semester change people’s attitudes and commute habits? It did for Perelman and Biren. Biren’s brother and Perelman herself both changed their commutes after taking a day to Bike It.