When riding a bike is a ‘prank’

The internet is ablaze today with the story of a group of Michigan high school students who were suspended after riding their bikes to school, despite the fact they had arranged for an escort from the city’s mayor and police department.

Public sympathy seems to be squarely on the side of the students, which means if there’s one thing Americans hate more than cyclists on roadways, it’s excessive punishment of high school kids. In comment threads on various articles about the incident (and from parents), the principal of Kenowa Hills High School, Kate Pennington, has gone in for a fair amount of abuse for her reaction.

“If you and your parents don’t have sense enough to know your brains could end up splattered on Three Mile and Kinney, Fruit Ridge, then maybe that’s my responsibility,” she told the group before sending them home, according to a cell phone recording captured by a student.

The idea that a group of kids riding bikes to school constitutes a “prank,” and a life-threatening one at that, raised eyebrows among more than a few cyclists, including myself.

But thanks to the magic of Google Maps, we can see that Pennington has a point.

The ride, according to news accounts, started on Kinney Avenue in Walker, Michigan, just outside Grand Rapids. Here’s a picture:

So far, so good, right? Nice wide street, sidewalks, plenty of room for cyclists, pedestrians and cars to go about their business.

But it doesn’t take long for those sidewalks to disappear, the street to narrow, and homes to become fewer and farther between:

Thank goodness that no-parking sign is there. If you pull over too far, you’ll probably roll into the cornfield.

From here on, it only gets worse. We turn onto Three Mile Road, a busy four-lane highway. It’s hard to see in the photo, but if you don’t feel like rolling the dice on the car traffic, there is a sidewalk on the right side of the street, crisscrossed by multiple driveways:

To the north of here, there’s a freeway that we have to get across to get to the school. And the only way across (unless you want to go another mile or so out of your way) is Fruit Ridge Avenue:

Watch out for that truck!

The rest of Fruit Ridge is a four-lane road with no shoulders, and a couple of sections of sidewalk. Here’s where one ends abruptly:

And then, for the final stretch, we turn onto Four Mile Road:

Finally, we arrive at Kenowa Hills High School (you can see it off in the distance, past the parking lots).

The only way this school could be more inaccessible to bicyclists is if they built a moat around it.

And the narrow, two lane roads – with few alternative routes – make it easy to understand why the bicycle parade required a police escort and led to massive traffic backups.

Whether Pennington’s response was an overreaction is a matter for parents, students and school officials to sort out. And there are issues of authority and communications here that go beyond the students’ chosen mode of transportation that morning.

But when the mere act of kids riding bikes to school can cause a major disruption and bring down entire links in a community’s transportation system, that points to perhaps some deeper issues of urban planning. Critics of alternative transportation infrastructure often criticize it as “social engineering,” but plopping a school into a semi-rural area that’s only accessible by car takes away the students’ (and parents’) ability to decide for themselves how they want to get to school and back.

As an experienced cyclist, I’d be very hesitant to make this route my daily commute. As a parent, there’s no way in hell I’d turn a teenager loose on it.

One of the conversations they could be having in Walker this week is what they can do in the future to let the class of 2013, 2014, and beyond ride their bikes to school without needing a police escort to keep them from getting killed. We’ll see what happens…

UPDATE: Pennington has apologized to the students, according to a story on MLive.com:

“Yesterday, I made a mistake and sincerely regret my actions,” said Katie Pennington, in a statement. “Did I overreact? In retrospect, of course I did. My first response to learning of our high school seniors riding bikes to school on busy roads was to fear for their safety, and I responded in kind.”

10 thoughts on “When riding a bike is a ‘prank’

  1. Thanks for this great post.

    If Principal Katie Pennington wants to punish someone, she ought to suspend the traffic engineers, urban planners and state and local DOT officials who designed these streets. These people should all be locked in stockades in the middle of the town square. Oh, wait. There is no town square.

  2. It’s one thing to ride that road alone and it’s another to ride it in a group of 60 riders with a police escort at the rear.

    This wasn’t an issue of turning the route into a daily commute to school by a single cyclist but a one-time escorted group ride. Look out for the truck? hmm, there would have been a police car between that truck and the group of cyclists. As a parent, I would have strongly encouraged my child to take part in that type of ride and in fact, as a parent of a former middle school student, I had encouraged my son to ride the five miles to school whenever he could. He has never had a problem with even approaching obesity.

    I really question your experience as a cyclist when you fail to see the difference.

  3. Regarding the difficulty or impossibility of safely walking/biking to school, the Institute of Medicine just released a major report on this (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/08/usa-health-obesity-idUSL1E8G74K720120508) that described this issue in detail:

    “For instance, a lack of sidewalks makes it impossible to safely walk to work, school or even neighbors’ homes in many communities. So while 20 percent of trips between school and home among kids 5 to 15 were on foot in 1977, that had dropped to 12.5 percent by 2001.

    The panel therefore recommended tax incentives for developers to build sidewalks and trails in new housing developments, zoning changes to require pedestrian access and policies to promote bicycle commuting. Flexible financing, and streamlined permitting or tax credits could be used as encouragement.”

  4. I think that the next time ANY school in America gets built, there better be money set aside to ensure that there are safe walk/bike riding options to access the school. Those already in existence, need to start advocating for better accessibility. If, like this Principal says, that we really are concerned about kids safety, then we should be equally concerned about their health and freedom of healthy choices.

  5. @Michael – you’re missing the point. Normally, when people ride a bike to work or school, it’s not in a police-escorted group of 60 people.

    The reason the principal freaked out is because under normal, everyday circumstances, it would be borderline suicidal for a kid to attempt to ride a bike to school on those roads. She said so in her own words. The point of the post was to illustrate what an impossible choice it would be for a kid to try to ride to this school absent the context of an organized event.

    So to be clear – would I send a kid on the police-sanctioned group ride? Absolutely. Would I encourage a kid to take up a daily habit of biking to school year-round? On these roads, not on your life.

  6. @BikingBrian – We’re talking about teenagers with limited riding experience, not a bunch of Cat 5 Freds. Be realistic.

    Taking a lane does help tremendously in urban areas, but on semi-rural roads where traffic is moving in excess of 40 mph, it’s risky.