Debbie Bischoff thinks her daughter, Laura Retzler, is “dangerous.” Why? Because Laura and her husband, Henry Wigglesworth, bicycle their two children, Molly (5) and Claire (3), to school daily – unlike 66% of Puget Sound parents who drive their children to school.* Actually, the only thing dangerous about Henry and Laura is their challenge of the status quo.
For Henry – a 47 year-old staff attorney for federal judges, originally from Manhattan – not owning a car is normal; biking was the natural next step. Laura, a 36 year-old nonprofit recruiter, also enjoys less dependence on combustible engines, as well as the fitness aspect of transportation by biking.
A transplant to Seattle in 1997, the couple admits what may sound surprising to many outdoors-loving Northwesterners: “bicycle commuting was easier when we lived in Washington DC! DC is flat; the city is also dense, built on an easy to understand square grid system, where more bike trails make short commutes easier for cyclists…slower speeds of automobiles are another reason to bike commute.”
Many parents are afraid to allow their children to walk or bike to school. When I meet Molly and Claire outside of Spruce Street School on Virginia downtown, it is hard to imagine the two kids enjoying a drive to school. Molly, sporting a bright blue helmet, smiles as she brags about her morning commute: “I usually expect people to clap for me,” she says. Molly likes pedaling the Comotion tandem both uphill and downhill, but admits that she does not like the rain. Meanwhile, her sister Claire quietly nods her head in agreement that the protection of the Burley trailer behind Mom’s Bianchi Eros is equally to her liking.
As we are talking, school principal, Briel Schmitz, adds that a few other parents bus to Spruce with their children and then bike to work from the school. Many parents are curious about the families’ commute; kids even ask Henry for bike rides in the morning. Schmitz does not know any other families who bike together to school and work. I ask principal Schmitz “Has the school ever hosted a bicycle rodeo.” Briel replies negatively, adding that events must be incorporated into existing school curriculum. I sense an opportunity here, which will have to be re-visited.
Carfree before moving to the Northwest, Laura and Henry did buy a used car when they moved to Seattle. The rain, travel distance for errands, and Laura’s job requirements made them feel it was a necessity. The couple investigated Flexcar, but did not want to deal with the inconvenience of transporting car seats for their children. Jamie Cheney, Flexcar general manager, says “of course, kids are welcome and parents may bring their own car seats; but, at this time, Flexcar has chosen not to outfit each vehicle with a car seat due to the high logistics costs (e.g., there are three types of car seats) and the low percentage of members who currently require car seats.”
Laura and Henry joined Cascade in 1998 – the year of their first Seattle To Portland Bicycle Classic. Laura is a triathlon enthusiast, and recently joined Team Group Health to improve her cycling. Henry is an accomplished runner and stair climber, having won several stair climb events. The couple reminisce about Seattle’s mass transit struggle, wishing someday for dedicated bus lines, a sky train like Vancouver, a light rail system like Portland, or a subway like DC.
Until then, the family’s bicycle life sets an example of simple living for parents everywhere. They hope Molly and Claire grow up desiring to live in a dense city where their commute enables them to learn more, meet more people, and build a better community through bicycling.
For parents interested in bicycling their kids to school, Laura and Henry believe in these safety principles: “Both our girls wear helmets. We only ride with them in areas where cars don’t drive over 25 mph. Drivers are courteous when you’re on a tandem with a child or pulling a trailer. We try to be courteous by riding on the side of the road, signaling when we turn, and stopping at red lights. But it’s important to remember, I think, that the source of the problem in serious bike accidents is the car. Cars, not bikes, kill more people than guns and drugs combined. So the safest thing a parent can do when they commute with children on bikes is encourage policies that limit the speed and number of cars. In the mean time, we’ll just hope for higher gas prices and bad traffic to do the trick!”
* According to the 1999 Puget Sound Regional Council Household Activity Survey Data, 66% of children are driven to school, 9% walk to school and less than 1% bike to school.
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