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How a local organization is working to get more Calgary students biking to school

For many years, bike theft was a problem outside Forest Lawn High School in southeast Calgary.

It’s something assistant principal Mark Anderson heard about from students as a hindrance to them biking to school.

But now that the school administration has teamed up with Youth en Route, they’ve seen a massive change.

“We were able to modify those bike racks to make them more appropriate and safe, and we were also able to bring them inside the school,” he said.

“The students here actually fabricated, with the financial support of Youth en Route … bike-locking racks that we can use.” 

Since then, they’ve had no thefts, Anderson said. They’re even considering adding a third rack inside the school because they’re out of storage space.

Bike theft is just one of the issues Youth en Route is trying to tackle. The Calgary group connects with area high schools to figure out what barriers students are facing when it comes to biking — whether it’s storage, road safety or learning how to ride a bike — so they feel more empowered to bike to school and beyond.

The bike racks inside Forest Lawn High School are almost always full, according to assistant principal Mark Anderson. (Submitted by Mark Anderson)

Laura Shutiak started the group in 2021 and has now worked with about 10 schools in Calgary, one in Lethbridge and one in Red Deer. She says she was inspired by her own children, who didn’t want to ride their bikes to school.

“It was geeky, nerdy, not something that they wanted to do,” she said in an interview on The Homestretch.

“It got me thinking about how empowering it is for kids to be able to be independent and go where they want to go, and we need to change the attitude at high schools.”

Shutiak starts by contacting each school and conducting surveys to find out what’s stopping students from choosing to bike. Then, they start targeted programming, teaching students about hand signals to use on the road, the importance of helmets and proper mapping of cycling routes.

The Forest Lawn High School bike room is filled with a fleet of bicycles, sent by Youth En Route, which are used for phys-ed and language classes. (Submitted by Mark Anderson)

Shutiak says they’ve provided either full or partial class sets of bikes and maintenance kits to about six schools.

“We’ve created fleets of bikes that the teachers are using in phys-ed class,” she said. “Many times those classes start in the parking lot or in the field where the kids are literally learning how to ride a bike.”

They’ve also given some surplus bikes to school officials so they can be distributed to students.

Youth en Route is now conducting surveys at the schools to better understand how successful the program is.

Youth en Route provides boxes of tools needed to maintain the bikes. (Youth en Route)

Anderson says he has noticed the difference, with rotundas full of bikes each morning. The school is also using the bikes to support students who are new Canadians.

“Our English-learning program has adopted the bikes, and we take the classes out and we learn language … through the use of the bicycles,” he said. 

The school has started competitions and giveaways for students riding their bikes multiple times a week. They’re also looking to start a bike mechanics program.

“We’re trying to do all things for all kids just as the needs come up,” Anderson said.

‘It gives me more confidence’

Still, some students in the city are not quite ready to make the adjustment.

Bettiel Woldeghiorghis is a Grade 11 student at Bishop O’Byrne Senior High School. She doesn’t have a bike, and even if she did, she doesn’t feel completely comfortable with the idea of riding to school, preferring the bus instead.

“My house is too far … I think it’s like 20 minutes to my school,” the student said, adding she’d like to see more dedicated bike lanes around the city to make her feel more comfortable biking to school.

She is part of a leadership class that partnered with Youth en Route. They spent the spring studying helmets and concussions, traffic safety, bike repair and wayfinding. Then, they used their fleet of bikes to ride to elementary schools around the area to share what they’d learnt. 

Students at Bishop O’Byrne Senior High School learn how to change a bike tire. (Youth en Route)

Her classmate, Justina Obateru, also helped to deliver those lessons. Obateru also doesn’t bike to school because of the extra time it takes and the unpredictable weather in Calgary, but she says she’d like to start biking more.

“I find that I have a lot more pride when I bike and I’m able to kind of test my knowledge when I’m biking based off of what I learned … and it gives me more confidence,” she said.

Justina Obateru says she enjoyed learning about bike safety, mapping and repair through the Youth En Route program. (Submitted by Justina Obateru)

Anderson says previous surveys indicated most students still get a drive to school, but the trends are changing. 

“I’m anticipating some feedback on the work we’ve done so far that they’re feeling safer.… They’re not nervous about where they leave their bicycle,” he said.

Youth en Route recently received $50,000 from the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation’s Climate Innovation grant program. It provides funds to projects that protect and conserve Alberta ecosystems and watersheds and meaningfully address climate change.

Shutiak says the funds will be used to build and improve bike racks at schools and to purchase more bikes and helmets so they can expand programming even further.

“Those less than two-kilometre, three-kilometre routes are the low-hanging fruit,” she said.

“Kids want to do the right thing. They want to lower their greenhouse gas emissions, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it. And so we want to provide some support and answers so they can make this choice.”

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