No parking allowed! That’s the message to parents dropping off their children at elementary schools in Odense, the third largest city in Denmark. As part of an effort to increase the number of kids commuting to school by bike, local schools are trying to create the ultimate cycle-friendly support system — parents will even be ticketed for parking in front of the school. A whopping 80% of kids in Odense walk, bike, or skateboard to school, making us nostalgic for the stories our parents and grandparents used to tell about their daily journeys to school. But this city isn’t a throwback to days past; it has simply committed to being cyclist-friendly, and kid-cyclist friendly in particular. With more than half of the city streets accompanied by separated bike paths, Odense is living up to the Danish reputation for being cycle-happy and is giving kids an early, supported, and healthy start for getting places on two wheels.
The city takes an inclusive approach to making sure all of its students learn the basics of cycling. Kids first learn how to ride bikes on the playground in kindergarten, and the city’s Cycle Happy School program then begins teaching students how to ride in traffic. By fourth or fifth grade, so many students are confident in their bike skills that classes bike to field trips in lieu of taking a noisy, exhaust-belching bus. There are even incentive programs like CycleScores, through which students can win prizes via a lottery system by earning tickets every time they ride by electronic checkpoints.
It’s not just the separated bike lanes that are so welcoming to cycling culture. Since there are so many cyclists on the road at all times, drivers are already more cautious when they share space with cyclists at intersections or on streets without barriers. Many adults also bike to work so some kids two-wheel commute with their parents. And the city’s government is committed to making changes that benefit the health and safety of its citizens. The rate of kids going to school in a car in Denmark has soared up 200% in the past 30 years. Odense’s efforts are an attempt to provide kids with some physical activity on their way to school and raise confident, can-do, and independent kids. Contrast Odense’s situation to the reality in many cities and towns in the U.S. — with some exceptions, there are few if any separated bike lanes, drivers have no idea about biking etiquette, and most parents are fearful of letting their kids commute to school by themselves for a number of reasons. On this side of the ocean, it’s an unfortunate cycle of events, but Odense’s well-planned efforts and support systems are an inspiring example of incremental and doable change. Odense officials ultimately hope that 90% of the city’s kids will walk, bike, or skateboard to school.