Bicycling for health: a German perspective

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By Beth Duffy


Physical fitness opportunities for children, particularly in school settings, is heavily influenced by culture. While American students usually play sports in enclosed areas, their international counterparts experience different pursuits.

In my past visits to educational institutions, school recesses varied significantly but took advantage of the unique geography of the region: English school children climbed the nearby hills, Russian school children splashed in the Baltic Sea, and Brazilian school children played natural pińata to knock down coconuts.

Iowa schools can encourage child fitness with nature-society benefits by encouraging bicycle riding to and from school, if the pathway is safe. Biking, as with walking, can enliven the senses with sights, sounds and smells of the local built and natural environment.

As identified in The Gazette’s Nov. 25 article on “bikeability of schools,” biking is recognized locally for contributing to the health and well-being of children. In that article, a school administrator mentioned considering obtaining more bike rack space. That statement reminds me of an international “bicycle” experience worth sharing.

Picture standing outside at a wide door leading to the basement of a school. Instead of opening the door to reveal steps, there is a ramp leading indoors. Instead of bare walls, overhead lighting reveals large, brightly colored student artwork. Occupied bicycle racks fill the room. A door at the opposite end opens to a staircase leading to the school’s first floor.

I was guest at this school near Hamburg, Germany, and witnessed the excitement of this bicycle garage. At the end of the school day, more than 200 students close up their lockers, then walk downstairs to find their bicycles safe and dry. They visit as they secure books in baskets or bags, then take off up the ramp to head for home. The large room is a very safe physical and social environment where bicycle-riding is seen as a positive, encouraged and popular student activity. Students are self-motivated to become part of this lively community.

Providing some form of bicycle garage should be an element of any “bikeability” consideration. While local culture acknowledges the physical health that comes from exercise, well-being also includes an emotional side. Emotional health is questionable for students who stand their bikes at the normal positioning of bicycle racks, adjacent to parking lots. As other students drive or ride away, bicyclists must linger as they thaw frozen locks, dry off rain-soaked seats, pick up knocked-down bikes, or deal with taunting or bullying.

Just as parking has long been a major urban issue for automobile-driving adults, and ramps are built to physically provide safe, convenient parking with positive emotional inclination to want to use these recognized facilities, so too may this perspective be applied to bicycle-riding children.

A school bicycle garage is a novel idea worth considering when concerned about the lack of children taking advantage of the health and wellness bicycle-riding can offer. Not every school has an available basement to offer as bicycle garage, but there might be an empty room or shed. Health-conscious alumni could help support such a space; and bike shops might use the facilities for instructional, bike-maintenance workshops.

It is sad to think health benefits of bicycle riding may be reduced by the emotional stress a child may feel by not having a safe place to park the bike or by dealing with bullying from children who ridicule the activity.

To encourage students to bicycle to school, perhaps the philosophy of “Build it. They will come.” may be applied. It works in Germany.

Beth Duffy of Solon is a former professor at Kirkwood Community College and the University of Dubuque, and has traveled extensively overseas. Comments:


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