Finding Balance: CommonWheels Educates Children on Bicycle Safety and Maintenance

For many people, learning to ride a bike is a childhood rite of passage. CommonWheels aims to make it possible for all youth, even those living in the city where they might experience challenges with learning how. 


The Allston-based non-profit is using a grant from Boston Children’s Collaboration for Community Health to extend its mission: to use the bicycle as a tool to empower  youth to be more self-reliant, healthy, and connected to their community. Working at K-12 schools and community centers, primarily in Allston and Brighton, CommonWheels provides free skills workshops, leads social rides and offers tools and guidance.

 

Or, as Thuan Nguyen, newly hired (thanks to the grant) program director, puts it: “We want to get urban kids psyched about riding!”

 

For children, “there’s very little culture of riding in the city,” Nguyen notes. “The traffic, the infrastructure, the storage issues. It’s not easy for someone to hop on and ride. There are bike lanes, and that’s great—but then you have to watch out for parallel parking.”

 

Bike riding is a great way for children to be active and physical activity correlates closely with health. Studies suggest that obesity rates have doubled since 1980 for children and have tripled for teens. In the past 20 years, the proportion of 12- to 19-year-olds who are obese rose from 5 to 18 percent. Obesity can lead to problems such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, anxiety and depression as well social problems like bullying and stigma.

 

Gearing Up

 

CommonWheels is using the grant to launch a program called Gearing Up, which has several cycling-related goals. Nguyen and the team are teaching the basics about bikes and biking, including rudimentary mechanics.

 

Once students are up and riding, with an understanding of how to maintain bicycles, “it’s all about dosage,” Nguyen says—CommonWheels lingo for how much time children spend riding, and the duration of any given ride. Rather than put students in a competitive situation, the children are encouraged to do their best according to their own ability.


To the North End and back

 

Brighton’s Boston Green Academy educates a diverse group of 6th- to 12th-graders, many of them from low-income families. The academy recently discovered CommonWheels. “We were so happy to find CommonWheels, which is five minutes from the school,” says headmaster Matt Holzer. “They tailored [Gearing Up] for our students, and it was exactly what we were looking for.”


In the academy’s 5-day program, 20 students and three staffers—including Holzer—were taught and accompanied by Galen Mook, CommonWheels’ founder and president, with an assist from Nguyen. Day One consisted of basic safety training and checks, and practice on a basketball court. In the following days, the students ramped up both their distance and the challenge, learning to ride safely, in a group, on city streets. Day Four brought the big payoff: a 16-mile round trip, largely along the Charles River, to the North End. “That was pretty cool for all involved,” Holzer says.