The New York Bike SchoolMonthly highlights Urban Cycling Stories
Riding a bicycle to school is often a first taste of life on two wheels. Riding a bicycle to a bike school takes the idea to a whole new level, and – odd though it might sound – looks like it could become a reality for youngsters in New York City.
What exactly a bike school might be is a question that becomes more exciting the longer you listen to the answer. A curriculum that teaches mathematics through the distances of a bike ride; chemistry through the annoying possibility of particles fusing in a seized, corroding seatpost; physics from the leverage effects of differing wheel sizes; geography by round-the-world cyclists and literature through the novelists, thinkers and poets who over the years have favoured travel by bicycle.
One of the Brooklyn residents pushing the group forward is Andree Sanders, from the New York organisation Trips for Kids. She eloquently sums up the wider purpose behind the school, explaining the sort of holistic benefits that most passionate cyclists can relate to.
“On a bike there are times where obstacles must be overcome, a fear, an object in your way, a mechanical with the bike, these are moments where a decision must be made. This moment requires trust in oneself, belief that you have what it takes to solve it, allowing yourself to take risk. This is a moment of personal growth, creating a learning experience for students which stays with you and which can transfer from the bike to everyday decision making.”
There is also an intention for students, often confined to classrooms and small homes in a crowded city, to make cycling a key part of their day. Bike trains to and from school, where young people and parents can ride in the safety of a group, are becoming more common in forward-thinking towns and cities around the world, and would certainly figure as part of the Brooklyn project. Then there are the vocational skills that can be developed through bicycles – setting youngsters on the way to careers in mechanics, engineering, bike retail or distribution.
Beyond the practical, however, and at a time in history where throwing things away or paying someone else to carry out repairs is commonplace, the school wants to offer an opportunity for learning by doing, where students carry out practical tasks that offer creative challenges and genuinely hands-on tasks, rather than only entertainment or learning by the screen of a computer, television or phone.
Will Knoesel, who runs a local bike club, explains the excitement of students who have attended his Fix-A-Flat puncture repair workshops, where he often incorporates an economics lesson that appeals to the entrepreneurial side of youngsters.
“Some of my students live in neighbourhoods that lack bike shops, and I teach them how easy and inexpensive it is to patch an inner tube. They share their skills with their communities, and sometimes make some pocket change by selling their services. Teens love it when they become expert at something, and hopefully this spurs them to pursue other endeavours.”
If all this feels like wishful thinking, just off the southern tip of Manhattan is evidence for how possible the dream really is. The Harbor School on Governor’s Island is now in its thirteenth year, with students learning how to sail boats, pilot ocean-going freighters on a simulator, and study the health of those rivers and the sea that has sustained the New York metropolis over the centuries. In both groups, it’s hard not to notice that the schools take the often white, male and middle class pastimes of sailing and cycling, making them more accessible to youngsters who are more representative of the city as a whole.
Joe Matunis is another New Yorker already working with bikes and helping to get the bike school project off the ground, “There is never one “type” of student who is drawn to or benefits from bicycling,” He says. “Some come because they are drawn to the physical activity and challenge, some because they are attracted to the machines and are mechanically inclined, some come for the social aspect of hanging out with friends and teachers they like, some are drawn by the chance to do and see new things, some because they want to exercise and have no other options to do so.”
Joe enthuses at the positive role of bicycles in bringing a sense of confidence to young people struggling with physical and cognitive conditions, but also talks about how some of the young people he meets have ridden bikes in their home country, only to stop when they move to the mean streets and heavy traffic of New York City. Perhaps most importantly, Joe stresses that the bicycle always brings out something unique in young people.
“As students begin to identify bicycling as an important part of their lives, they begin to make connections and seek answers outside of the initial things that attracted them to bicycling.”
With the US often sceptical about all things public or government-supported, these approaches to schooling take advantage of the country’s options for education provided by communities. Despite that, the group are keen to make sure the school is not a private one, but something open to the whole public and all young people who might benefit from such an approach to learning.
“I think that the school will help students recognize strengths and interests of theirs that have been underdeveloped in a traditional school setting,” says coordinator Jenny Adelman. “Through developing such skills they will be more aware of their own potential to make decisions that will influence their future educational and career opportunities. It’s developing a sense of agency to shape one's own future, and the perspective and maturity to be able to see challenges in the long term.”
To see some of the young people getting involved with bicycles, watch this film by Video of bike group. If you’re a New York resident and want to get involved with turning the school into a reality, follow them on.
Brooks and the author would like to apologise to New York bikers for its British English spellings.
All image courtesy of Moe Adams