When kindergartners start school in Odense, Denmark, they’re more likely to show up on a bike than to be dropped off in a car. At some schools, cars aren’t even welcome, as one elementary school principal told the Washington Post:
“Eriksen said it’s unsafe for the hundreds of students who arrive on foot or on their bikes. Police will ticket parents who dare to park in front of the school.”
In the city of around 200,000 people, four out of five children bike, walk, or skateboard to school. In the U.S., the same thing used to be fairly common—in 1969, nearly half of all elementary and middle school students walked or biked. But by 2009, that number had dwindled to 13%. While the rates are climbing again now, the majority of American kids get a ride from their parents.
Even in Denmark, known as a cycling utopia, the rate of kids going to school in a car has gone up 200% in the last 30 years. Over a third of children don’t get any exercise in their daily commute.
Odense has pushed hard to encourage cycling and built a network that makes it safe to ride. “We have 545 kilometers of separated cycle paths, and in comparison, we have 1,000 kilometers of streets,” says Connie Juel Clausen, traffic planner for the city. “So that means that we have a lot of cycle paths in Odense.”
Even streets without separated bike lanes are often safe enough for kids to ride on, partly because there are so many cyclists that drivers are more careful. When someone on a bike reaches a major intersection, they can usually cross through a tunnel or over a bridge. “We don’t regard an intersection with a light as safe for children,” Clausen says.
Clausen’s own daughter started biking to school by herself when she was six, something that’s not uncommon in Odense. “Of course it depends on how young the children are, and it depends on how clever the children are as well,” she says. It depends on the situation. But at many schools, we have a cycle network that is safe enough for children to ride on their own on the way to school.”
When children start kindergarten, they learn to ride bikes in the playground. The city also runs a program called Cycle Happy School, partnering with schools to slowly teach kids how to ride in traffic as well.
“Of course some parents are worried,” says Clausen. “The idea in the project Cycle Happy School, the aim, is to show the parents how capable their child is. If he or she can ride through Odense during school hours, maybe he or she can ride to school as well.”
The city also encourages children to ride through programs like CycleScore, which uses an electronic checkpoint to give students a lottery ticket every time they ride by. With the tickets, students can win prizes such as bike accessories or T-shirts. Ten schools in the city use the program, and it’s worked: since 2014, when it began, bike trips have increased 28%, and 7% of children who used to get a ride in a car to school now bike instead.
By fourth or fifth grade, when students go on field trips, they bike instead of taking a school bus.
Most adults in the city also bike. For people who live inside city limits, nearly every other trip—to work, to run errands, or to go out—is on a bicycle. But the city is trying to push cycling rates even higher. Because the city already has a fully built bike network, now it’s more focused on just making cycling more convenient by adding features such as extra bike parking.
Odense is also continuing to try to get more children on bikes, even though the city already has what is probably the highest rate of child cyclists in Denmark. Ultimately, they say, 90% of children could be walking, biking, or skating to school.
All Photos: Thomas Mørkeberg