Santa Monica is compact, densely populated and dotted with 12 schools. Roughly, there’s 9,000 students.

All but a small number of those kids get driven to school every day.

That’s thousands of car trips to and from school every day. Often, each trip no more than a mile or two. Many less. Twice daily, our schools and neighborhoods are besieged. Principals are out directing traffic. Kids duck and dive to get onto campus. Roads are jammed.

Few walk, fewer ride bikes.

Go back even a few years and it was different. Bikes were the way to school everyone rode. Did kids change or parents?

Whatever. Car culture rides high today.

Santa Monica should be prime bike territory. It is just 8 square miles, has great weather, features geographically tolerant easy terrain; everything you need to ride comfortably all year round. And, there’s often unforgiving traffic making car travel difficult and slow.

So what does it take to get California kids out of their cars? Get parents out of the driving habit?

Apparently, you need to have extensive organization and infrastructure plus support from compelling ideas added to a big reason to start even a small change.

Bike It Day at Samohi, a few days ago, was the start on culture change.

Promoted as a “Car-free campus day” and led on campus by the Samohi Solar Alliance, the push was to “green up” and walk, bus or bike it to school. It was a combination of environmental action and personal responsibility.

Here are a few highlights: 1,200 or 40 percent of Samohi responded; 250 rode bikes; 405 walked; 500 used a bus.

Why doesn’t this happen all the time? On bikes, kids are independent. They know they’re self reliant. They get fit. Bikes match a school campus easily. So, why aren’t hundreds if not thousands of kids biking to Samohi daily?

While staging Bike It Day, every reason not to ride emerged; backpacks too heavy, lockers not big enough, kids play sports and need another bag, musical instruments too hard to manage, kids don’t own bikes today.

A big one? Just much, much more convenient to drive. And some parents couldn’t image that their kids were up to riding. Why would they? They’ve never had the chance.

Many parents (and kids) didn’t and don’t believe any individual action makes a difference. “It’s too late anyway. 2012 is here. We can’t reverse what’s happened; why do anything; its others problem.”

All in all, a powerful combination of indifference and incomprehension.

So, sometimes, it takes a visual.

Administrators walked round the corner of campus and found normal bike racks jammed and 170 feet of temporary bike racks loaded with 150 bikes. There was an immediate effect. Something big had happened. Those 170 feet of bike racks displaced 11 cars. Think about it; 150 people in the same space as 11.

Today, Samohi has 400 car spaces for the 3,600 people on campus every day. Students get 40 spots. Late next year a building program removes 280 spots. What happens then? Consider car pooling or bus and bikes. Couldn’t we do that anyway? Shouldn’t we?

Meanwhile.

Parents have reasonable safety issues. Parents do worry strongly about their kids riding on Santa Monica’s roads. Imagine that. Our roads aren’t up to kids’ riding. That’s a statement about the roads and the priorities we’ve allowed to shut out the bike as partner in transport. It’s about real city culture.

The city of Santa Monica has a million dollars plus in two grants to spend on creating safe routes to school. That money flowed from state government after successful Bike to School Days. The money would dramatically improve bike safety around Samohi.

So, this city budget year, do they prioritize safe bike travel, spend the allocated money and make roads safe for kids? Or sit back and let it languish?

It’s a very pointed choice for the city. The easy way out is to do nothing and claim cutbacks forced their hand.

Depends on the city mindset.

Samohi generates up to 8,000 car trips a day. It sits beside two major on-ramps to the I-10 Freeway. That’s big in congesting the city. Get a thousand kids, even 500 on bikes, and you free up roads, remove pollution.

In spring, the school board approved a big resolution committing the district to bikes. SMMUSD Superintendent Tim Cuneo and Assistant Superintendent Mike Matthews were on bikes at Bike It Day. Now every Santa Monica school needs a nudge, and a receptive city to link into.

Small steps set up big changes. Bike It Day brought a donate a bike program; more bike racks; started a discussion about transport to a major Santa Monica work place; pushed a bike culture and above all got kids on bikes.

Bike It Day was a great begining. Even if there’s a long way to go on all fronts, a big change is starting.

Richard McKinnon is chair of Bike it Day and and a Spoke Santa Monica executive member.

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