Bike-to-School Advocates See Tonight’s Forum as Key Opportunity

Wednesday, October 4, 2017, 8:03 am
Alice Dreger

Above: Bicycles outside MacDonald Middle School.

Having fought for many years to get administrators of the East Lansing Public Schools to let all students bicycle to school, bike-to-school advocates see tonight’s Community Forum as a key opportunity to make headway. This comes on the heels of Monday night’s annual joint meeting of the ELPS Board of Trustees and East Lansing’s City Council, where Councilmembers pushed Superintendent Dori Leyko and the Trustees to move on this issue.

At Monday night’s meeting, Mayor Mark Meadows expressed frustration that as far back as the 1980s, his children were stopped from riding to school. Why, he asked, is the School District still discouraging bicycling to school?

Councilmember Erik Altmann, a steady advocate of bicyclists, noted that biking habits develop early. He suggested that encouraging children to bicycle to school will help them develop a life-long habit of bicycling.

In response to Altmann asking what the controversy was, Trustee Kate Powers responded, “There used to be a policy prohibiting riding to school. That’s changed, but with the current facilities [at the elementary schools], there are no bike racks.” She said she expected this would change with the rebuild of the elementary schools made possible by the school bond passage this past spring.

Councilmember Shanna Draheim said she hoped the District would push many forms of non-motorized travel to and from schools through Safe Routes to School, particularly as car traffic at the schools is often frustrating and sometimes dangerous.

Board of Education President Nell Kuhnmuench responded that for at least the last eight years there has been no prohibition on riding to school, but acknowledged that the District has not been encouraging it. Trustee Erin Graham seconded Kuhnmuench’s statement that there has been no prohibition on biking to schools.

But Meadows challenged them to go back and look at the history, because he was skeptical that there was no formal prohibition. He said he had been told “by school officials that our children were not allowed to bike to school.” Meadows noted that if the soon-to-be-built elementary school buildings were subject to City building ordinances, “we would require you to put in bike racks.”

District parent Erich Ditschman has been pushing for years to get ELPS to change its approach on this issue. Responding to a request for comment on this issue from ELi, he writes, “In 2015 the East Lansing School Board changed District policy so that the half-a-century old policy to ban on riding bicycles to elementary schools was no more. Since then the Board has done nothing to encourage bicycle riding for students, parents, or staff to these schools.”

Ditschman says ELPS is an outlier: “Our District is still one of only a few in the entire state that does not encourage biking to our neighborhood schools, or provide secure parking.”

Why should children be encouraged to walk and bike to school? According to Ditschman, “reams of research” show benefits: “physical, psychological, environmental, less traffic congestion, stronger sense of community, safer streets, reduced family transportation costs, learning life-long health habits are among them.”

At Monday night’s meeting, Superintendent Dori Lekyo said that, “If we have them biking but we have no process” for facilitating bicycling to school, “then we could be liable, if we have bike racks. We have to mitigate liability.”

Meadows said he understood there was “some danger” in bicycling, “but there is danger in getting up and walking out the front door. There was a time when we didn’t let the kids play baseball, only softball, because it was less dangerous. We’ve gotten beyond that,” he said.

Contrary to what Leyko told Council, Ditschman insists, “There are no legal arguments concerning liability issues to not encourage bicycles as a means to get to elementary schools.”

He is hopeful that the system is about to change, and believes it is high time, given that the Safe Routes to School has been in the District since 2008. He also wants to make sure the new school designs are thoughtful from the start about bicycling and walking to school.

“Hard lessons have been learned at MacDonald Middle School where, when it was upgraded to include a sixth-grade-wing, planners ignored pedestrian and bicycle access,” Ditschman tells ELi. “Due to leadership at the school, and endless hours of parent volunteer support, pedestrian access and bicycle parking have seen improvements.” But, “Driving by at pick up time, one can easily see that more is needed.” He also says the District needs to take seriously educating children about bicycle safety.

At Monday’s meeting, Leyko said that a District family had offered to purchase bike racks for one elementary school but that she had turned down the request because she wanted “to look at it District-wide” and have an “equitable approach” to the elementary schools.

Ditschman is also hoping for a District-wide approach—one in which the school system actively takes on the job of helping children commute to school by bicycle. He points those interested in this issue to the Facebook page of the group We Want to Ride Our Bikes to School (ELPS). That group is calling on bike-to-school advocates to attend tonight’s public forum on the new elementary schools, which will start at 6:30 p.m. in the MacDonald Middle School library.