Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter
Schoolchildren are being reintroduced to an old concept. It is called “active transportation.”
Students in a handful of cities involved in this experiment probably don’t think much about the carbon emissions they are preventing as they navigate their bicycles toward beeping devices that count their rides to school.
Nor do they likely realize that their playful pedaling has stopped a spark in the family car’s combustion car engine; or that their bike rides chip a little piece off the mountain of miles that U.S. school buses travel each year — 4 billion.
But a growing number of teachers and parents see a variety of benefits from putting kids back on the wheels that earlier generations took for granted. Getting kids to ride now, they say, will build momentum for cycling habits they can carry into adulthood.
“It’s all about habit,” said Ned Levine, principal of Crest View Elementary School in Boulder, Colo., where about 130 students — or 25 percent — ride to school every day.
Kids, it seems, needed only a little push and a tiny blip of help from software.
Under the “Freiker” program, this young man, named Joey, has a computer chip mounted on his helmet. A computer mounted on the platform standing on the right counts Joey as he pedals in for “frequent biker” prizes.
That is what Robert Nagler discovered a few years ago when he was trying — unsuccessfully — to convince his children to mount up for the short ride to Crest View. So he began offering cheap prizes that he bought at the China Trading Co. — not just to his kids but any that rode over and over again.
“It was pretty exciting,” Nagler recalled. “You know, you come to school every Friday with a bag full of prizes. It was like Christmas.”
But that brought on the daily job of counting bikes as the children cruised chaotically into the schoolyard. Nagler and a friend tried to automate it by using punch cards. Later they adopted portable electronic scanners, the type used by retail stores. That meant Nagler could scan bar codes adhered on parked bikes at any point during the day. But the devices were cheap and failed before long.
So in the summer of 2006, Nagler, who runs a small software company, built an automatic counter that uses radio signals to detect a small chip attached to each child’s helmet. The solar-powered counter, mounted on a post, beeps as the kids glide by. The data is uploaded onto a Web site, so students can track their ridership — and that of their competitors.
Now the program, called Freiker (short for “frequent biker” and pronounced friker) is operating at 11 schools in four states and Canada. Prizes are awarded to the hardiest cyclists at the end of each school year. Prizes vary with the school, but the excitement generated by a few iPods has never been matched, Nagler said.
“There was a big jump in ridership,” Nagler added. “Now when it’s zero degrees, there’s 25 or 30 kids riding” — and that is just at Crest View Elementary.
The maiden school has seen a fourfold increase in the number or riders since the program began. Altogether, the 11 schools have recorded 121,213 rides since 2005. The program received its first corporate donation this year from Trek Bicycle Corp., amounting to $25,000. Organizers hope to expand Freiker to between 15 and 20 schools by the end of the year.
Those rides can make a difference. U.S. EPA says that “leaving your car at home just two days a week will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 1,600 pounds per year.” That is the equivalent of an average American’s total emissions for one month.
The program echoes a bigger movement meant to increase biking and walking. Conservation groups, cities and researchers are trying to wake Congress up to the benefits of “active transportation.” That means using muscles to cruise the contours of a community, not a car.
“That’s what we need — a mind shift. You don’t always have to drive,” said Thomas Gotschi, director of research at Rails to Trails Conservancy.
The group says that new infrastructure, including better-designed bike lanes, could lead to a 13 percent to 25 percent increase in biking and walking, depending on the aggressiveness of the overhaul.
That would slash car travel by between 70 billion and 200 billion miles a year. Carbon dioxide emissions, in turn, would decline by between 33 million tons and 91 million tons annually. Overall, private car travel, which currently accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s emissions, would drop 3-8 percent, according to group’s findings in a recent report.
“Decades of car-centered transportation policies have dead-ended in chronic congestion, crippling gas bills, and a highly inefficient transportation system that offers only one answer to most of our mobility needs — the car,” warns the report, called Active Transportation for America.
But getting Congress to steer away from the United States’ romance with cars will require measurable justification. So there is a national movement to count bikers and pedestrians — something that has been done to strengthen automobile policies for decades, but never for bikes.
“One of greatest challenges facing the bicycle and pedestrian field is the lack of documentation on usage and demand,” says the Web site for the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project.
The coalition is preparing to ask Congress to fund automatic counting technologies in 20 cities.
Limited counts are already happening in some places. Baltimore, for example, started a project last summer that documented 8,000 bikes and pedestrians on the Pratt Street bike lane over 10 days. More counting could change city policies, said Nate Evans, the city’s bike and pedestrian planner, who some call the “bike czar.”
“If significant bike traffic exists, we could justify adding more bike lanes or even taking a vehicular travel lane,” Evans said in an e-mail.
Freiker is doing its part to achieve critical mass. Schools in Colorado, California, Oregon and Ottawa, Canada, are participating in the program, which costs about $4,000 to begin, not including the price of prizes.
The program expanded to its first high school last week in McFarland, Wis. The experiment could be ground breaking: Will teenagers trade their gas pedal for a bike pedal?
Early results have been tempered by technological glitches with the automatic counter, called a Freikometer, and an unusually long setup period. The Freiker Web site, which tracks real-time rides, showed that two bikers rode to the high school yesterday. Almond Elementary School in Los Altos, Calif., meanwhile, registered 91 daily riders. That’s the most of all participating schools.
Jeff Kunkel, an English teacher at McFarland High School, expects the program to take off next year, when prizes will be featured for the first time. Still, there will be challenges, he said.
“We’re going against a pretty ingrained car culture,” Kunkel said, noting that most students drive less than a mile in the town of about 7,000 people. “Trying to challenge that is our new task.”