Art + Bikes = a beautiful combination

Carrie Harvilla Headshot

 two middle school students spray paint a muralSchool’s out for summer! After a very full year of Safe Routes to School activities to encourage families to walk, bike, carpool, and take transit, I’m feeling reflective. Our team of ten awesome site coordinators is always innovating to serve the unique needs of the more than 160 public schools we work with, but there’s one project in particular that stands out in my mind as a personal and professional highlight.

Cesar Chavez Middle School has participated in the Alameda County Safe Routes to Schools program for more than 4 years, with its students taking the lead on organizing International Walk & Roll to School Day, the Golden Sneaker Contest, and Bike to School Day. But many of the students have difficulties getting to school, for several reasons. 60% of the 1200 student population is eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch, and within the past few years, the school district has cut busing to the school, making it more difficult for students to arrive on time and ready to learn. 

In theory, bike safety education classes and BikeMobile visits are all that students need to feel comfortable riding to school. But in reality, it takes more than that. When it comes to transportation habits, some of the biggest influencers are culture and the people closest to us. And in middle school, it’s all about what’s cool.

So this winter, to get more students at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Union City excited about bicycling, we tried something totally new: we got artsy.

Thanks to funding from a "Play 60, Play On" grant*, the 8th grade students in the Student Leadership Class decided to paint a mural to beautify the bike corral space and encourage more kids to ride their bikes to school, particularly if they live too far to walk.

The school’s bike parking area was hidden behind a drab wall - something many students overlooked. The Student Leadership Class decided to change the perception of biking by making the bike area into a beautiful space. Students helped design and paint a mural design with the Illuminaries, a local professional street artist group. In a brainstorming session, ideas ranged from riding bikes in outer space to a simple jaunt to the nearby park.  It was important to represent the diversity of the kinds of students who ride bikes and also include school spirit (their hawk mascot made the cut). They also came up with phrases that they felt captured the essence of what’s fun about bicycling.


Painting took place during the school day, so the whole student body could watch the transformation in action, and pitch in. For most of them, it was the first time they’d used spray paint: you could see their excitement. After a month-long design and painting process, the mural was ready to unveil. To celebrate and draw attention to their new creation, students planned a school-wide Bike Day and ribbon cutting event. We brought our bike-blender (because besides spray paint, nothing attracts teens like free bike-blended smoothies). If you think making biking cool is tough, try convincing teens to wear their helmets. To address this, kids personalized free helmets at a helmet decoration station. 

You can hear Student Leadership Class talk about the experience themselves:

Looking back, this project embodied the best of the community organizing spirit that is at the core of our Safe Routes work: collaborating with partners to bring outstanding opportunities to the people we serve, while providing meaningful experiences that help kids and adults take leadership roles in making healthy transportation choices. 

The students directly involved in the mural had a hands-on, memorable learning experience. It was the perfect complement to the Safe Routes event organizing they do throughout the year. They were able to influence concrete outcomes, make visible progress towards increased bicycling, and take ownership and pride in their bike corral.  And best of all, the entire school community - present and future - benefits from their work with a mural that personalizes the campus while reminding everyone of the joy of bicycling.


*Our friends at the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership secured this PLAY 60, Play On grant, an initiative presented by 50 Fund and the NFL Foundation.


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