Article from the Wall Street Journal
Summary: This 1996 article is more memorable for its statistics than for the carping about personal liberties.
Copyright, The Wall Street Journal
September 9, 1996
The Bicycle Loses Ground as
a Symbol of Childhood Liberty
Getting a bike used to be a kid's passport to
freedom. Those who grew up in the decades through the
1970s fondly recall long summer days spent on their
bikes, when they would reappear at home only to eat
and sleep. No more. Many parents, even ones in quiet
suburbs or serene middle-American towns like Greeley, Colo., simply don't
allow their children to ride far without supervision.
GREELEY, Colo. -- In July, 12-year-old Cody
Gillenwater and his father rode a tandem bicycle 925
miles to Phoenix. A few weeks later, his mother wouldn't
let him bike by himself to a tennis class five miles from his
"I think about the traffic, and I think about my kid getting
snatched," says Marty Gillenwater, who doesn't want her
only child to become another "face on the milk carton."
Getting a bike used to be a kid's passport to freedom.
Those who grew up in the decades through the 1970s
fondly recall long summer days spent on their bikes, when
they would reappear at home only to eat and sleep. No
more. Many parents, even ones in quiet suburbs or
serene middle-American towns like Greeley, simply don't
allow their children to ride far without supervision.
"I wish I could go wherever I want," says seven-year-old
Alexis Fleming of the Dallas suburb of Richardson,
Texas, as she sits in her living room, her father's arms
around her. The only time Alexis can bike around her
neighborhood is when her family goes on walks. Then she
must stay on the sidewalk and go no more than two
houses in front of her parents. Wistfully, she wishes aloud
that she could ride all the way to the end of the block,
then back to the house. "I'd stop at the stop sign," she
What has put the brakes on Alexis and other kids,
parents say, is a nagging fear of the potential dangers
lurking outside their front yards. Heavier traffic and even
the passage of helmet laws are constant reminders of the
perils on the roads. Highly publicized kidnappings have
only upped the paranoia. The irony of this isn't lost on a
generation of parents who themselves pushed the
boundaries of independence but don't feel comfortable
with their kids doing the same.
"I don't protect them from risks," explains Alexis's father,
Steve Fleming, of his four children. "I just provide an
atmosphere that's more controlled."
So now, biking is yielding to more controllable surrogates
-- supervised play groups, structured extracurricular
classes and an explosion of organized sports -- that leave
children with considerably less free time for discovering
the world on their own. Alexis and her three siblings, for
example, are kept busy with a schedule that includes not
merely the old standard, baseball, but also swimming, tae
kwon do and gymnastics. Alexis gets the dance lessons
her mother never got as a child, while brother Zach, 8,
can already do a double flip off the diving board.
Still, Mr. Fleming looks back with longing on his own
childhood in Colorado Springs, when he could ride
wherever he wanted by the age of six. "I was a man of
the world," he says.
Bike makers, too, have felt a noticeable shift. Sales of
20-inch bikes, those typically bought for children eight to
10, dropped to three million last year, down from 4.2
million in 1993 and a peak of 5.2 million in 1987. Some
of this is attributable to rising competition from in-line
skates and video games, but parental curbs on how kids
use bikes is unquestionably a factor, says Bill Smith, vice
president of marketing for Huffy Bicycles unit of Huffy
Corp. His nine-year-old son has tough restrictions on
where he can ride his bike. "I had more freedom when I
grew up in the Bronx than my son does today in Dayton,
Ohio," Mr. Smith observes.
Parental fears -- and dwindling use -- do have an upside.
Last year, 242 children five to 14 died in bike accidents,
a decrease of 59% from 1975, according to the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The decline came
despite a 14% increase in the number of children in that
age group since 1986.
Meanwhile, though the child population has been steadily
rising, the number of children kidnapped, murdered or
ransomed by strangers has remained constant at about
300 a year during the past 15 years -- a statistic that
doesn't make parents feel any better. "I don't think there's
any question that public awareness of the issue is rising,"
says Ernie Allen, president of the National Association
for Missing and Exploited Children.
Fighting the Tide
Some parents try to put aside their fears, but it isn't easy.
Jill Parker of North Potomac, Md., allows her
nine-year-old twin boys to ride around a bike path in the
subdivision where they live. "They need to know they can
do things without restrictions," she says. Still, Ms. Parker
admits she worries every time the boys pedal off. "I'm
scared to death about weirdos being out there and
grabbing the kids," she says.
Greeley, a tree-lined farm town of 60,000 about 40 miles
north of Denver, seems about as far from those kinds of
urban nightmares as a place could be. But Sgt. John
Gates of the Greeley Police Department says the anxiety
cuts across class lines. He says he sees fewer kids riding
bikes on the affluent west side of Greeley than when he
was growing up there, but adds that bike riding is even
less common in the working-class east side.
Some worry that the loss of independence can carry a
price, cutting into a child's confidence and willingness to
venture into new territory. Linda Robbins, who rarely
allows her nine- and 11-year-old daughters to ride more
than a block or two from their Greeley home, has noticed
that her girls often have difficulty making decisions. She
wonders whether there is a connection. "They ask me
really simple things," she says. " 'What should I wear to
school today? What movie should I watch?' "
It can take just one incident to alarm a town, and Greeley
had one this spring when a 12-year-old schoolmate of
Cody Gillenwater's was struck by a car and killed after
biking through a stop sign. Cody was so bothered by the
death that it took him weeks before he was willing to ride
past the accident site on his regular bike rides with his
father, Bill. Once there, Mr. Gillenwater made a point of
talking about how the accident could have been avoided.
Both the Gillenwater parents are passionate recreational
bike riders -- the family owns nine bicycles -- and they
often ride with Cody. At the same time, their own
experiences have made them more aware of the dangers
their son faces as a solo cyclist. Three years ago, for
example, Mrs. Gillenwater was riding by herself in the
country outside Greeley when a man standing by the
roadside exposed himself to her. While Mrs. Gillenwater
laughs about the incident now, it also makes her aware
how vulnerable her slender 5-foot-2-inch son could be.
"He's a kid still," she says. "He likes people."
Cody only shrugs when asked about his mom's bike
rules. "Sometimes it does bother me," he says. "But
drivers are not aware of what they're doing nowadays."
Still, Mrs. Gillenwater goes the extra mile to keep Cody
riding. Every morning she takes Cody and his bike by car
across a busy highway to the elementary school where
she works as a librarian. Then, Cody puts on his helmet
and rides two miles to middle school with his friends.
This page was revised or reformatted on: February 22, 2019.