In Denmark, school children must be evaluated for 10 hours each year around bicycle skills. But this time span is a minimum. Teachers often outreach this time span voluntary, and they get help from the police when planning activities.
Mr Jakob Schiøtt Stenbæk Madsen is political consultant at the Danish Cycling Federation (DCF). In an interview he gave to a Quebec delegation in April 2014, in Copenhagen, he described the importance of focusing on the youngest to keep up the faith in cycling. Even with a successful “Safe Routes to School” Program, DCF believes that pre-school children are the key to invest in, with the goal to maintain a high modal share of cycling in the future.
But why targeting 3, 4 or 5 years old kids? “Because there is a strong relation between age of first rides and the number of years spent cycling. The younger you start, the longer you’ll last”. Scientific research shows that self-confidence increases if positive experiences are linked to a younger age. The goal with our day nursery program is not to teach safety rules, it is meant to be a fun, enjoyable, an truly positive experience. At this age, kids do not realize they are doing something specific like riding a bicycle. They are simply "participating" in an activity, like any other activity. Rather than teaching safety, the program develops the “feeling” of safety.
It is based on a series of 20 practical games, which help for standing on the bike, being able to pedal, turn and stop, etc. It prepares kids for the next steps in the real traffic conditions. Given the importance of these first steps for confidence, kids are more thrilled than scared with the idea of riding to school by bike. The parents will also be more receptive if their child had developed good skills and is more likely to interact in a safe way.
Each year, daycare workers of Denmark are trained by a specialized crew of 30-40 teachers. In 2015, the program will be expanding, hopefully reaching the staff of all daycare centers in the country.
And when they reach school, children keep learning about the bike with the Safe Routes to School program. A total of 140,000 kids are being exposed to this program each year. One interesting aspect for the kid is the reward system. For example, each day they go to school by bike, the kids receive a lottery ticket for a new bike, and they receive an extra one if wearing a helmet. During two weeks, specialized teacher (ex. mathematics, English, etc.) are also allowed to incorporate bicycle themes in the official content of their class.
According to Jakob Schiøtt Stenbæk Madsen, the bicycle program works well because it relies on habits teachers and the whole population already have. With competition coming from other types of school programs (ex. Healthy food, recycling, pollution prevention), it’s hard to get a participation program recognized and adopted from school officials. So the 10 mandatory hours spent each year must help paving the way. The school program covers 1st to 7th grades at high-school, and is expected to be covering 9th to 10th grades in the future.
The Dutch have the same type of educational approach. In Amsterdam, the City of Amsterdam is giving lessons to school kids. Children have theoretical and practical traffic exams specifically designed for bicycle riding .They for example take time with children to carefully plan the cycling route they will have to ride next year.
Video: Gemeente Amsterdam, Traffic Education in Amsterdam, 2014.
In conclusion, raising awareness gives an opportunity for changing habits, and for making riding bicycles safer. But the fatalist argument that mentality change is not achievable in a car-oriented society has to be questionned. It simply has to start “somewhere”, so let the youngest be the future!