YBike Youth Ambassadors gain skills as riders, leaders

It’s a sunny afternoon in May. A fleet of bicycles sits on the playground at Lipman Middle School in Brisbane, a city of 4,200 people along San Francisco’s southern border.  Under the shade of the school building, a group of children and adults in neon safety vests circle up to talk about fitting helmets. Then, they head towards the bikes to examine the tires, breaks, and clamps. The adult instructors aren’t leading the safety check. Instead, it’s a middle school student—soon to be one of the first graduates of YBike’s Youth Ambassador Program.

 YBike was born at the YMCA of San Francisco almost a decade ago. Its clubs and classes have reached 4,500 youth in that city. Now, MTC and BAAQMD are helping YBike expand its afterschool programs around the Bay, though a $250,000 Spare the Air Youth grant. The two-year grant will be used to launch free Youth Ambassador Programs at public middle schools in San Mateo, Marin, and Sonoma counties. The semester-long afterschool program offers weekly rides, nutrition lessons, and climate education.

Lipman Middle School is one of four schools to participate in the first semester of YBike’s Bay Area expansion. YBike Director Matt Dove says the partnership with Lipman came about because “the leader of their afterschool programs reached out.” Active partnership with schools is fundamental to YBike’s Youth Ambassador Program. Participating schools must commit to recruiting a dozen students, and providing space for blacktop drills. YBike provides bikes and helmets, and two instructors.

Over the course of 15 weeks, youth gain progressively more skills and responsibility, working towards a leadership project to engages peers in bike education. They practice hand signals and safe spacing in traffic. Youth are also supported to make decisions about where to go and how much they want to challenge themselves. They seem to be rising to the occasion.

Given the choice between riding down the street to the park, and up to a vista point on San Bruno Mountain, the kids vote overwhelmingly for the uphill ride. Feet to the pedals, they scale 100 feet to a trailhead, transitioning from asphalt to dirt with relative ease.

They stop to take in the expansive view of the Bay, scanning the landscape for every possible form of transportation. Cars and trucks roar by on Hwy 101. Yachts and container ships float on the Bay. They can see planes departing SFO, and Oakland Airport across the Bay. A CalTrain chugs along the shore.

With all those options, why are these kids on bikes?  Hands shoot up. “When you bike, you use your own energy and not energy from fossil fuels,” explains one budding ambassador.

Indeed, YBike’s potential to reduce transportation-related emissions was a fundamental criterion for its Spare the Air Youth grant. But the program also carries many other benefits. For Dove, simply “being able to work with these kids and develop relationships is a huge reward.”