Bike to school: Youth En Route encourages Calgary students to keep riding

The organization wants youth to see bicycles as a viable mode of transportation

By Leanne Murray | September 8, 2022 |5:00 am

Youth En Route started during the pandemic and now provides programming at several Calgary schools.

Photo: Submitted

A local organization is on a mission to encourage youth to see bike riding as more than just a summer activity for kids.

Youth En Route started as a pet project for executive director Laura Shutiak during the pandemic.

“I had two kids in high school and just really saw how COVID was impacting kids in a whole range of ways,” she says.

“In many cases, they lost their route to school.”

Shutiak says students were unable to carpool and transit services were impacted, so many kids had trouble getting to school and getting around.

Changing mentalities

When Shutiak asked her teenagers why they didn’t ride their bikes to school, they had a few reasons.

One was the understandable risk of bike theft, but another was simply that none of their friends did it.

“It’s not that they don’t know how to ride bikes, or they’ve never been on a bike,” Shutiak says.

“They just think about a bike as something that they ride around the cul de sac when they’re little tiny kids. It’s not something that they think about as transportation. And that’s kind of the cultural shift that we need to make happen.”

Youth En Route provides programming at several Calgary schools.

Encouraging active travel

Shutiak saw a need for an organization in Calgary dedicated to helping teens figure out how to get to school.

“There was nothing that was… working with kids to get them to push for this change, this cultural shift.”

Shutiak says Youth En Route follows the Ontario School Active Travel Plan, which has a goal of getting more kids walking and wheeling to school.

“It’s basically a roadmap for how to encourage active travel at a school. We’ve taken it, adapted it for our age group, because we’re talking about kids that are autonomous, that are making their own transportation choices.”

Removing the barriers

Besides the issue of theft, Shutiak says there is also a lack of bike racks and storage at local high schools.

“We realized that our work had to be really multifaceted. Our approach… had to sort of work on all of those barriers, specific to each school and what the students there were faced with.”

Youth En Route kicked off with a pilot project at Dr. E.P. Scarlett High School in 2021, which included a Bike to School Day where more than 50 students and 11 teachers participated.

Shutiak says Youth En Route will work to meet the individual needs of each school and its students.

Volunteers from the Greater Forest Lawn 55+ Society helped get donated bikes to Lester B. Pearson High School.

Working with schools

Thanks to funding for a project at Lester B. Pearson High School, Youth En Route fixed the bike racks and provided 40 donated bicycles for student use.

“For a school like Pearson, the number of kids that have never been on a bike is approaching 10 per cent. Now they can ride in gym class and they can experience what a three-kilometre bike ride looks like,” Shutiak says.

At Bishop O’Byrne High School last year, 40 leadership students were taught about things like bicycle safety, how to change a tire, and planning a route.

Those students then created a lesson plan and shared it with four elementary schools where they led bike rides and hosted bike jamborees.

Securing funds

Last week, the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation announced that Youth En Route was a recipient of $50,000 thanks to the Climate Innovative Grant Program.

Shutiak says the funding will help provide programming at 10 Calgary schools. She is still finalizing the project plan for this school year and encourages principals or teachers to reach out if they are interested.

Youth En Route has also launched its first major fundraiser in partnership with B&P Cycle.

They’ve put together the Shift Happens Emergency Pack, which includes a mini-pump with pressure gauge, multi-tool, patch kit, adjustable wrench, and bandages.

Proceeds from sales of the kit will help Youth En Route provide programming in more schools.

The Shift Happens Emergency Pack includes items to help with small bicycle mishaps.

Looking ahead

Even though Youth En Route has only been around for a little over a year, Shutiak is excited about what it’s been able to accomplish so far and about the growth potential.

She’s looking at ways to incentivize more teens to ride bikes, adding that one school may create a course where students can earn credits.

Youth En Route may also start implementing class or school competitions, and will continue working with the City of Calgary on bike-to-school initiatives.

Shutiak says bike riding has a positive impact on a person’s physical health and the environment, and it can help youth feel more independent.

“This is so empowering for these kids,” she says.

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Leanne Murray

Leanne is a Calgary Citizen reporter.

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