Bike Share for Kids?

A new program in Paris has lessons for cities like Boston.

Associated Press

Associated Press

Last week, Paris’s bike share program launched a new feature that might give protective parents a minor stroke: bike share for children. Given the consternation we have in America over bike share even for adult cyclists, you can imagine how such a program might go over if proposed in a city like Boston, but it’s worth looking at why Paris is investing in getting its children on communal bikes.

The program (called P’tit Vélib) made kid-size bikes available to children as young as two or three at five sites around the city, mostly next to public parks or bike paths where kids can ride in safer spaces. The kid bikes will come with helmets.

But why go to the trouble of giving kids access to bikes in a major city? The philosophy is that by starting them early, Paris can encourage a more bike-centric culture.

“We wanted this habit of riding a bicycle, the cycling experience, to be learned at the earliest possible age and that young Parisians pick up the habit at the earliest opportunity,” a city official told the Associated Press.

After all, to grow a bike-friendly culture, as Boston has tried to do in the past several years, you have to do more than build solid bike infrastructure. (Though that is important.) You need educated bikers and drivers. A Boston Globe story last fall hit on this point when it examined why countries like the Netherlands have such bike-centric cultures and asked what Boston could learn from them. Part of the answer was the age at which children started biking in traffic.

Peter van Rijn, a Rotterdam University engineer, standing before the Northeastern students, wanted to make sure they all got one crucial, contrarian-sounding point.

The key to bicycle safety, he said, had little to do with the design of the streets.

“Where does it start? I always say traffic education,” van Rijn said. “It starts at schools — primary school, elementary school . . . it’s a matter of learning how you should act or ride or drive in traffic.”

The Netherlands is a nation of expert bike riders, where children learn not just how to ride a bike, but how to ride a bike in a traffic system alongside cars, pedestrians, and public transit.

Safety is, of course, the highest priority, particularly when small children are involved in any new initiative. But, taken in this light, a bike share program for kids could be seen as the first step toward a safer city for cyclists and drivers of all ages. It will be interesting to watch how it is received in Paris and whether it expands to other bike share systems around the world.