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Let’s Launch a Bike to Class Week

By Julia Katz on August 31st, 2015

As a dual degree graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC Chapel Hill) studying city and regional planning and public health, I am passionate about promoting healthy and active living. While many physical environments need to be modified or developed to facilitate active living, college campuses typically have the supportive infrastructure. The League of American Bicyclists even recognizes schools as Bicycle Friendly Universities to encourage and credit bikeable campuses around the country. However, many universities have not engaged their students in biking on campus, so students often still rely on their cars or public transportation to get around.

National Bike to Work Day, a well-organized annual event in May that encourages biking to work, has succeeded for ten years in convincing people who typically commute with motor vehicles to instead try a bicycle.  National Bike to School Day is a similar program run in elementary schools. In 2014, research showed that self-reported behavior after Bike to Work days showed modest increases in bicycling after the event and that the participants were more diverse than the average daily bike commuter. However, programs like these are tailored to non-college students and take place when university students are taking final exams and preparing for summer internships.

What if we created a similar change to bicycling culture on college campuses, where young adults face binge drinking, unhealthy eating, and remaining sedentary at their computers? I say “creating a culture” because infrastructural changes are more expensive and bureaucratic. For example, as Tar Heel Bikes works to implement a bike share program at UNC Chapel Hill, members are discovering that they need to enhance bike culture before requesting infrastructural changes—like more bicycles and racks, and permanent bike maintenance facilities—for the program. Given campus interconnectivity, campus bicycle culture could be created without new infrastructure and could cultivate demand for longer-term changes.

Not only could we intervene at an opportune time, but also in an opportune place, where the built environment is more conducive to walking and biking.

A “Bike to Class Week” in September, when students return to classes, could potentially reach 12.5 million 16-24 year olds who are enrolled in university or college, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We know that youth who exercise are more likely to become adults who exercise, yet as students transition from high school to university, they exercise less. We also know that young adults in college are developing and maintaining behaviors that are highly likely to continue into adulthood. By developing healthful patterns of regular physical activity early in the semester, “Bike to Class Week” could even create a strong active living and biking culture on campus, leading to higher demand from students to develop safer and separate infrastructure for cyclists.

If you’re interested in launching a “Bike to Class Week” at your college or university, there are plenty of ways to start! Here are just a few:

  • Find other members of the student body, staff and faculty to get more buy-in and increase the number of people you reach.
  • If there is an alternative transportation program, a bike group, a bike share program, or even a transportation planner at your college, connect with them!
  • You can also create an online event page like Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, and Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, did.
  • Reach out to local groups like healthy community coalitions and bike advocacy groups.
  • To involve the wider community and to promote bicycle safety, partner with local businesses to provide discounts to people with university I.D. cards and a bicycle helmet.
  • Finally, create a hashtag—perhaps, for example, #Bike2Class—for social media platforms to start conversations and spread the word.

Photo credit: “Bicycles,” (CC) John Loo.

Julia Katz

Healthy Communities Planner

Julia is a freelance consultant working at the intersection of public health and urban planning.