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An Achievable Dream? Biking to School Folds Into Family Routine

Wednesday students from 1,500 schools coast to coast are making their way to class on foot or bicycle. Organizers hope National Bike to School Day draws attention to the need for safer routes for kids AND the importance of getting them more physical active

Maryland Avenue Montessori - on Milwaukee’s bustling east side - is one of the schools getting in the act this morning, as parents and students form walking and biking caravans. We meet up with one nine year old and her dad for whom getting to school on two wheels is already routine.

Chloe's dad sticks nearby, watching for traffic.

It’s just another morning commute for 4th grader Chloe Liu Miller. She’s making the mile trek through the UWM neighborhood to school on her newest bike. Chloe is already on her third cycle – and that’s not counting the tricycle she barely remembers.

Chloe sticks to the sidewalk, while her dad Joe pedals just off her left shoulder on the street. He talks his daughter through every intersection, as cars emerge from driveways and coaches as she maneuvers an unexpected obstacle - a pile of overturned garbage carts in front of an apartment building.

Chloe maneuvers unexpected obstacles.

Safely on school grounds, her dad locks up Chloe’s bike, winding a long flexible cable through its frame. She takes a few minutes to chat before rocketing into school – where she says her favorite subjects are math and school.

She can’t remember when she started traveling “al fresco” with her dad. He reminds her.....

'I used to ride her to kindergarten every day,” Joe Miller says.

Joe figured temperatures above 20 degrees and not too much wind indicated suitable biking conditions.

“She would get her full snowsuit on, her neck gator on, her hat her helmet and her big mittens and we’d go,” Miller says.

I ask if she remembers those days.

“No, I don’t really remember that,” Chloe says.

Starting in Kindergarten - through all kinds of weather - Chloe would bundle up and ride behind her dad.

Chloe still occasionally jumps aboard her dad’s bike – equipped with a spare slot for a kid at the rear - extra handlebars and spiffy wooden foot rests.

“I ride on both; when we have time and I wake up early; I can ride on my own bike,” Chloe says.

Chloe admits to occasional jitters when traffic is brisk.

“Sometimes when you are on a street and there’s cars coming in both directions and then there’s a stop sign and no traffic lights and stuff; that’s sometimes is like I get kind of nervous,” Chloe says.

His daughter delivered to her classroom, Joe Miller admits his heart did temporarily jump to his throat the first time Chloe moved from being passenger to her own wheels.

“I mean, I definitely still thought it was awesome,” Miller says.

Miller avoids busier streets on their commute and says the key is to teach kids the dos and don’ts of cycling. In Milwaukee, that means riding on the sidewalk until age eleven.

”Kids have to be on the sidewalk, I think that’s perfect. I think when kids understand that every single driveway is a potential hazard, and they just learn to look. I’m always talking to Chloe about, not only is it good for you, just the exercise, but I also think the more people are out there biking, the more other people are inclined to say, yeah, I should ride my bike,” Miller says.

Parent Tricia Zippel shares Miller’s enthusiasm. Toddler in tow, she’s been helping set up healthy snacks and stickers for bike to school.

“The kids have all been making posters, they’re going to carry signs if they’re walking in; kids will hopefully put signs on their bikes to bike in and there will be a big celebration here when they get here,” Zippel says.

Zippel also helped line up a bicycle drivers education class that will launch later this spring at Maryland Ave; she wants “the movement” to take hold at her kids’ school

“A lot of parents drop their kids off that could be biking more, like myself,” Zippel says..

Joe Miller urges Zippel to give herself a break. While he and his wife are busy juggling the schedule of one 4th grader; beyond the toddler she’s toting, Zippel has four young daughters enrolled at Maryland Montessori.

That’s an unwieldy group to convoy.

Usually Chloe has plenty of parking options. On Bike to School Day, hers is swallowed up in a sea of bicycles.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.