Like ducks leading their ducklings, most mornings bike activist Sinead Fitzgibbon and local parent Ken Dorph chaperone a brood of young cyclists to Sag Harbor Elementary School. Perched atop their own bicycles, Fitzgibbon and Dorph call off safety tips — “Always stay to the right,” “Stop at the stop sign” — to their group of eager helmet wearing students.
Above: The “bike train” at the Sag Harbor Elementary School.
With their own cycling expertise, some help from parents and a dose of moxy, Fitzgibbon and Dorph turned the concept of a “bike train” from an oft discussed idea into a reality in the Sag Harbor School District. A “bike train” is a group of parents and children who collectively ride to school in the morning.
As an advocate for the federal Safe Routes to School grant program, Dorph first learned of “walking buses” and “bicycle trains” from the education component of the program. Dorph himself is a cycling enthusiast and since his children started kindergarten in 2005, he has ridden with them to school. The push to create a “bike train” languished for the past several years until Dorph teamed up with Fitzgibbon.
“I grew up cycling to school and I thought it would be great to give other kids the opportunity,” Fitzgibbon remarked.
On the day before school started, September 12, Fitzgibbon approached her neighbor about riding with him and his children to the elementary building on Division Street, thus starting a Mount Misery route. While a bit further west, Dorph has started a “bike train” route with one other family starting from Archibald Way down through Jermain Avenue. (The children use the sidewalks on Jermain Avenue, a notoriously tricky and dangerous intersection for cyclists, noted Dorph.)
Although the “bike trains” are still in the early stages, Fitzgibbon noted they are already cultivating interest from curious kids. A few children have joined the group after seeing the “bike train” glide by while they were waiting for the morning bus.
“It’s a little bit contagious. On the first day, a whole group of kids came over [to us at school] and said ‘you rode your bike to school?’” Fitzgibbon recalled. “There is a cool factor that will spread.”
Teacher Kryn Olson has joined the team and a North Haven mother has approached Fitzgibbon about starting a route that goes over the bridge and into Sag Harbor Village. Dorph has been contracted by a parent hoping to set up a course from the East Hampton Town portion of the district on Route 114, while another parent has expressed interest in establishing a walking bus for students who live close by.
While elementary school principal Matt Malone has offered to send out an email blast to the school community on behalf of the local “bike train” contingent, Fitzgibbon believes parents will play an integral role in the success of this initiative.
“Parents should be the guiding torches. If we can get the parents involved it will definitely help out,” Fitzgibbon remarked.
Both Fitzgibbon and Dorph are sensitive to parents’ trepidation over the safety of the “bike bus.” However, they point out that children are more likely to be harmed in a car accident than on a bicycle and that each child receives a basic education in cycling safety.
They make sure the children’s two-wheelers are in working order, meaning the air in the tires, the chain and brakes have been checked, and that the children know how to use their machines. The students are also versed in basic vehicle and traffic rules. They are taught to look both ways at cross walks, stop at stop signs, stay on the right side of the road and always make sure a car is completely stopped before passing through an intersection. There is always an adult in the back and the front of the group, and the visibility of a large group, they added, makes motorists more aware of their presence.
Besides the physical and health benefits of bike riding, Dorph pointed out that cycling is known to improve children’s self esteem. In a Wall Street Journal column from earlier this month, Lenore Skenazy author of the book “Free-Range Kids” noted, “New studies suggest [children who walk to school] may do better academically, too.”
Dorph estimates that roughly two percent of Sag Harbor Elementary School students bike or walk to school. Conversely, the Smarter Cities website highlights a suburban primary school in the Netherlands where the government enacted measures to encourage bike usage and around 95 percent of students ride their bicycles to school.
Fitzgibbon hopes the local governments will take note of this “bike train” initiative and help emulate the goals of the Safe Routes to School program by providing infrastructure to facilitate biking and walking to the Sag Harbor campuses.
Coincidental to these efforts, Stella Maris Regional School in Sag Harbor will participate in the International Walk to School Day on Wednesday, October 6. Students living near the school are encouraged to walk to school with a parent or guardian. Pupils living outside the village will be dropped off by parents or their school bus at Mashashimuet Park where they will meet their teachers and participate in a “walking bus” to Stella Maris.