PS 18 X Initiative

Catching Up With The PS 18X Initiative

By: Jim Rutberg  December 19, 2022

In New York City, an innovative new program is using cycling to reduce health inequality and provide sustainable access to bicycles for 444 elementary school students.

The ‘PS 18X Initiative’ represents a new and scalable model for incorporating cycling into school-based physical education units, particularly in urban communities that may not have the infrastructure and resources to support cycling programs.

The PS 18X Initiative is a collaborative effort supported by the Major Taylor Iron Riders Cycling Club, led by Dereka Hendon-Barnes USA Cycling Board Member and President of the Major Taylor New York Chapter, as well as the Major Taylor Development Team, the New York chapter of Black Girls Do Bike (BGDB), Equity Design, an innovative NYC social enterprise with programs rooted in the Bronx and USA Cycling, led by Director of Membership Eric Bennett. “My ultimate goal with our organization is to bring awareness to cycling as a viable sport in the United States and make cycling accessible for all,” says Bennett.

The Challenge

There are 62 counties in the State of New York, and according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Ranking Report, in 2022 Bronx County ranked 62nd in health outcomes, which include life expectancy and quality of life. The Bronx is the unhealthiest county in the state and has been since at least 2011.

Many factors contribute to the health challenges facing adults and children in the Bronx. In 2022, 39% of adults in Bronx County reported participating in no physical activity outside of work, which is 13% higher than the national average. Thirty-one percent of children live in poverty, compared to 16% nationwide and 17% in the State of New York.

Customized Solutions

There are signs of positive change, however. The child poverty rate, although high, has been declining since 2015, down from 43% to 31% by 2020. To address the problem of physical inactivity among children, Equity Design works with NYC schools to create sustainable initiatives that leverage unique opportunities at individual schools. For instance, they worked with one school to redesign a quarter mile of sidewalk into a community walking track. They connected another school with resources that helped create a badminton program.

The PS18X Initiative

PS 18X on Morris Avenue and 148th Street in the Bronx features a large, paved yard and is adjacent to Patterson Playground. As a result, Mrs. Jordan, the school’s Principal saw the opportunity to incorporate a ‘learn to ride’ program for kindergarten through 5th grade elementary school students. Equity Design got to work coordinating resources, including USA Cycling, Free Bikes 4 Kidz, the Major Taylor Iron Riders Cycling Club (MTIR)/ Development Team and Racing Team (MTDT & BGDB), Bronx Health REACH and Street Lab. USA Cycling was overly honored and excited to be a part of the initiative, with its own goals including “making a space for everyone at the cycling table.”

USA Cycling provided ‘learn to ride’ curriculum and domain expertise in teaching cycling safety and skills to new, young riders. Free Bikes 4 Kidz, a non-profit from Maryland, donated and aided in transporting 68 bikes – ranging from Striders to youth pedal bikes – to the school. Volunteers from Major Taylor Iron Riders signed on as instructors for a pilot program on three Saturdays in October 2022. Bronx Health REACH and United Community Schools added greater capacity and support, and Street Lab coordinated the closing of the street to create a safe, open, traffic-free space for the students to ride the bikes.

The pilot program was a resounding success. Eighteen students participated on the first Saturday and, through word-of-mouth, attendance surged to 55 students the following week. More than 98 students showed up for the final session! Activities ranged from introducing the youngest kids to balance bikes and teaching children to ride pedal bikes safely and confidently, to staging short races for more advanced riders on the open street.

Why Cycling?

PS 18X Initiative

Introducing kids to novel forms of exercise, particularly activities that can become lifelong habits, is important to both Equity Design and MTDT / MTIR. USA Cycling told reported that they are thrilled at the idea of the possibility of a PS18X Initiative alumni representing the USA at the Olympics one day. “Cycling is for everyone,” says Eric Bennett.

Here’s how Maurelhena Walles, Founder and CEO of Equity Design, explained the philosophy: “We look for a unit we can measure, like the number or participants and total activity time. So, if we increase the physical activity time by increasing access to diverse programming – not just the traditional basketball and soccer – now, we’re increasing knowledge and exposure to activities people may not have been exposed to. That provides a new route to physical activity.”

Few PS 18 students know how to ride a bicycle, and even fewer own or have reliable access to bicycles. In addition, MTIR instructors discovered that many children only associated bicycles with delivery workers and bike messengers. Cycling as competitive sport, recreational activity, and cardiovascular exercise were novel concepts. Moreover, representation was an important motivation for both Equity Design and MTDT / MTIR instructors. “The opportunity we saw was for a predominantly BIPOC cycling team to introduce cycling to children of color, from Hispanic to Asian, Black to Middle Eastern, in this very diverse community,” said MTIR Treasurer and volunteer instructor, Patrick Merosier.

Fellow club member, MTDT team manager, racer, and instructor, Darrell Tucker – who started road racing in his 40s - added, “When I was a kid riding BMX, I never saw anyone on a road bike, never saw bike races and didn’t know anything about bike racing. So, the objective for me is to introduce them to cycling early on, so at least they have the option.”

Creating Sustainability

Sustainability is one of the guiding principles for Equity Design. According to Maurelhena, to modify behaviors, affect long-term health outcomes, and lift the Bronx County from #62, the community needs sustained initiatives rather than one-time projects. This is one of the reasons the PS 18X Initiative is being incorporated into the school’s Physical Education curriculum instead of operating as an after school or extracurricular activity.

By design, the PS 18X Initiative aims to create a repeatable and scalable model that addresses common challenges faced by urban and under-resourced communities:

  • Accessibility: PS 18 has 444 students and 68 bicycles (so far). Integrating bike safety and skills into the PE curriculum ensures that all students have access to bicycles consistently and frequently enough to become proficient and confident riders.
  • Safe Spaces to Ride: Access to safe places for children to ride bikes is a challenge in many urban environments. For the pilot program that consisted of three Saturday clinics, Equity Design worked with Street Lab, the community, Department of Transportation and NYPD Community Police to clean and clear streets of parked cars and close them to traffic. On an ongoing basis, the program will utilize outdoor and indoor facilities at the school.
  • Storage: In contrast to introductory cycling programs that aim to provide bikes, helmets, and locks to families in under-resourced communities, the PS 18X Initiative recognized many families lacked the space to securely store bicycles at home. Keeping the bicycles at the school also facilitates ongoing maintenance.
  • Continuity and Repeatability: Long term, Equity Design recognizes the initiative’s sustainability and expansion depends on the ability to train educators to lead programs in their schools.

How to Get Involved

Although the PS 18X Initiative is up and running, the school is still searching for additional solutions for secure storage and reliable access to the fleet of bikes. Walles encourages supporters with suggestions or access to resource to contact Equity Design at Similarly, the initiative will need ongoing support in the form of helmets, knee and elbow pads, and replacement parts for the bikes. Individuals or organizations able to help are encouraged to contact Equity Design as well.