How to teach your kids to ride bikes safely in a city built for cars

It's absolutely possible if you're careful

Teaching kids to ride a bike in Atlanta
The author rides with his daughters, Marley and Lola (left to right), who have now graduated to their own bikes.

Photograph by Growl

Intent to combine two passions of mine—urban bicycling and fatherhood—I latched my two daughters to my Trek hybrid bicycle when they were tots, beginning nine years ago with the eldest. They started as passengers in a little green carrier on the handlebars, then graduated to a trailer-bike behind, charming the spandex off joggers as they sang the choruses of “Lean On Me” and “Let It Go.” More importantly, they learned Atlanta with an intimacy that driving rarely affords, marveling at Krog Street muralists, the BeltLine’s vibrancy, and wafting hickory smoke from their favorite barbecue joints. But then, they got bigger and earned their own bikes. Which posed vexing questions: Can you ever feel comfortable letting children bike solo around a city with countless hills and roaring cars, one that’s still recovering from generations of autocentric planning? Is that traditional rite-of-passage still safe?

The answer, as I’ve proudly watched firsthand, is yes. If you’re careful. I took a DIY approach, one city block at a time. I affixed the brightest, flashiest USB taillights I could find to the girls’ seat posts and slowly let them venture from sidewalks onto quiet eastside streets and later into bike lanes. I hovered around them on my own bike like a paranoid daddy orca. When the hills were too much, I placed a hand on their backs and tugged them along, lending what my youngest calls “boosts.” Graduating my oldest to a larger bike with gears—more capable of handling elevation changes—has been a game-changer. No more boosts required.

But more formalized training options are available. They’re offered for free by the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition (exclusively virtual, for now) or a handful of licensed teachers around town who provide private lessons. Such options, plus the additional bike lanes and improvements the city builds as it urbanizes, could help parents warm to the idea of letting children skip the bus in favor of a bike. In the late 1960s, 50 percent of Americans biked to school, as opposed to less than 15 percent in 2015, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to Schools.

Stephen Spring, ABC education program manager, says the nonprofit has taught nearly 1,000 kids a bike-safety course and, with its partner Bearings Bicycles, donated hundreds of bikes in 18 elementary schools across the city, with the program growing rapidly prior to the pandemic. Implementing the training district-wide would make Atlanta only the second U.S. city to do so, following Washington D.C. Spring says starting at age seven or eight, whether in school or at home, is key. “That’s when children start desiring to go a little farther, and their hangout circle becomes more than the kid across the street,” he says. “They start socializing more at school, reading, and they’re able to navigate the city better.”

In terms of DIY tips, Spring recommends that novice pedalers begin on bright, sunny days on off-road paths, streets with protected bike lanes, and on quieter streets in their own neighborhoods or bike-friendly communities like West End or Ormewood Park. (Note: It’s legal per state and city law to ride a bicycle on sidewalks until you’re 13, and legal experts Spring has consulted have never heard of a parent being ticketed for accompanying them.) Other recommendations for kids: snug helmets, bright clothing, flashing lights for handlebars and seat posts at all times, and a thorough inspection of routes before using them. “If they’re going to start riding bikes to school,” says Spring, “you should do it with them for a while, so they can feel that support.”

As for my daughters’ progress, they haven’t graduated to daily rides to school yet. But my six-year-old, who struggled to stay upright on a bike less than a year ago, now rips off 12-mile family rides to Piedmont Park and back like it’s second-nature, whooping “yahoo!” down hills all the while. Trying to keep up, and watch out, I always nod, because I know the feeling.

This story appears in our March 2021 issue.