Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How much is youth bicycle education worth?

Last week, Bicycling for Louisville had to vacate the old church building that had housed our youth bicycle repair and safety education program. The owner of the building, Presbyterian Community Center in Smoketown, had given us free use of part of the building for the past three years. (Thank you, PCC!) Now, they have demolished the old church to make room for a new child development center.

While packing our belongings and moving them into storage, I reflected on the triumphs and challenges of the youth programs that we operated there. In 2005, as part of the grant-funded ACTIVE Louisville project, we launched a youth earn-a-bike program. In the program, kids 10-14 years old learned bicycle repair skills and could earn a bicycle to keep by helping to refurbish other bicycles. We also taught them bicycle handling skills and traffic safety.

Alas, earn-a-bike programs are difficult to operate at low cost without many dedicated and skilled volunteers. Teaching a 12-year-old how to repair a bicycle takes enormously longer than having a competent mechanic repair the bike. The instructors need excellent bike repair skills, teaching skills, and ability to maintain order among pre-teens in an environment rich with accident potential. Letting a repaired bicycle leave the shop without a thorough inspection (and possibly re-repair) by a competent mechanic opens the risk of injury to someone riding the bicycle, and consequently the risk of lawsuits. Ours was among many youth earn-a-bike programs that closed after a couple of years because we couldn't afford to provide enough qualified adult help for each student.

Packing up the shop gave me a chance to see again many of our experiments at making the program more effective and interesting for the young people. We had lots of good ideas, and some of them worked. Even our most successful summers or semesters, though, ended with only three or four students earning bicycles. Most of the students who started the program dropped out after a week or two, once they realized that they needed to work to earn a bicycle. A pre-teen ready to attack any bicycle problem with Vise Grips and a can of WD-40 often does not believe that some old person has something valuable to teach him or her about bike repair! God bless those gifted teachers and youth leaders who can lead young people to learn without making them feel like students in a class. I haven't developed that gift.

What about the triumphs? Taking three 11- and 12-year olds on an 18-mile bike trip and then on the Tour de Spirit rank as high points. We taught one 12-year-old to ride a 2-wheeler without training wheels. Three months later, he joined me on a 23-mile ride! Some of our students got pretty good at overhauling and adjusting the bearings on hubs, bottom brackets, and headsets. They developed skills needed to ride safely in traffic. We had fun together. I prize the memory of watching "our" kids riding through the neighborhood on bikes that they had refurbished and earned.

Were these high points worth the disappointments - the break-ins and thefts, dwindling enrollments, scrambling for funding, shutting down the shop? From a funder's standpoint, probably not. We have no way to show that the benefits justified the cost per participant. Perhaps a student who did not complete the program learned something that kept her or him out of a crash. Maybe the program built enthusiasm for biking among kids who participated only briefly or not at all. Maybe one of our graduates had a life-changing experience that would justify the entire cost of three years of running the program. We'll probably never know.

I know one thing, though. When I see a group of our young bicycling students start to "get it" - using proper lane positioning, scanning and signaling before turning, paying attention before entering or crossing a road - I know that our work is paying off. Every day, I ponder how to bring this experience to more youngsters in ways they can enjoy and absorb. Maybe we'll find the perfect formula and someday this blog will tell about the thousands of youth we have reached and how they have made bicycling safer and more widespread throughout greater Louisville. In the meantime, I will feel grateful for the opportunity to help a few youths learn to enjoy bicycling safely.

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