This fall I’ve been struck by the sight of bikes lining the broad sidewalks surrounding OPRF High School. It’s not just that the kids are back after more than a year of remote and partial remote attendance; it’s that biking is now big — really big. The bright jumble of bicycles can be seen locked to all the official bike racks, and to available posts and signs in all the surrounding streets, and sometimes they’re locked more than a block away on Elmwood Avenue and Superior Street.
The Greta Thunberg generation is actively moving to get to school, and therefore arriving with enhanced powers of concentration that sustain through much of the school day.
Not so elsewhere. Trinity High School in River Forest has a dress code that doesn’t exactly encourage bike riding, and bikes are nowhere to be seen on the campus grounds though many students are actively walking. On a recent visit to the Fenwick High School campus, I noticed that the public sidewalks surrounding the school lack racks and bikes. Inside the parking lot, the bike racks were more than half empty, and the same for the racks near the entrance. In total, I counted 12 locked bikes, including one secured to the stairwell inside the parking garage. Granted, Fenwick draws its student body from many communities, in addition to Oak Park, but what I was seeing was about one bike for every 100 students, close to the national average but a tiny fraction compared to the Huskie crowd.
As a former Safe Routes to School coordinator for several schools in Washington DC, I know that bike commuting to school is not a given, that the ridership tends not to warrant more than a half dozen well-placed bike racks near the schools’ main entrances. Parents are often all too willing to do the drop-off at curb sites, euphemistically labeled “car-pooling,” and they may have justified misgivings about their kids sharing the road in heavily trafficked streets. Nationally, 1.1 percent of students, age 5-18, bike to school, according to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, and 9.6 percent of students usually walk. If that was here, just imagine some thousand cars vying for a good drop-off spot near the corner of Lake and Scoville at 7:45 a.m. on weekdays.
The sheer number of students biking to OPRF helps support the safety of this transportation mode, but it is a smart move to revisit the Oak Park bicycle plan with these teens in mind, starting with the streets near the school. I understand that is underway.
Student biking begs the question: Are an increasing number of staff taking on this more sustainable transportation as well? I recently peeked into the gloom of the high school parking garage, and, not surprisingly, only cars are parked there. If a few parking spaces near the entrance were converted to bike parking and offered free to staff (these bikes could display a sticker) the contrast between the carbon-free student commuters and the teachers wouldn’t be so stark. Granted some of the bikes parked on the sidewalks may belong to staff, but who’s to know?
Illinois’ Department of Transportation is offering grants for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure through the state’s Safe Routes to School Program. In the 2021 funding cycle, no fewer than 35 infrastructure items were eligible, including some techy ones like a bike-sensitive traffic signal actuation device that can sense an arriving bike and help it get on its way forthwith. Makes sense to me because this environmentally respectful mode could use more respect. The main through ways near the High School — Lake Street and Ridgeland Avenue, lack thoughtful bike route planning. The demarcated bike route along Ridgeland has a painted cycle symbol placed squarely inside the vehicular lane, and its allusion to safety is worse than nothing. Yes, let’s prioritize OPRF High School with an enhanced bike plan and supporting infrastructure.
The students are becoming a silent majority of bike-riding, zero-carbon commuters. They deserve resounding applause for this — and more bike racks.
Susan Subak is an Oak Park resident.