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Bicycle advocate takes his message to schools

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Friday April 12, 2002

Believe it or not, traffic hasn’t always been a problem in Berkeley.  

That is one of many lessons that David Cohen, executive director, teacher and guitar player for the Bay Area Sustainable Transportation Education Project, or BAYSTEP, imparts to schoolchildren in the Bay Area. 

Cohen, who founded Berkeley bike messenger service Pedal Express in 1994 and started BAYSTEP six months ago, teaches kids about the history of transportation and development in the East Bay, the effects of road construction and automobile pollution on the environment, and the wonders of bicycle transportation. 

Cohen said he sees his work as one step in the development of a larger bicycle culture in the United States. 

“In this country, we’re so obsessed with the automobile, we really haven’t been able to develop an adequate bicycling culture and bicycling infrastructure,” Cohen said.  

At a Thursday morning appearance at Rosa Parks Elementary School, Cohen showed a group of about 60 kindergartners and first-graders a slide show on bicycle use around the world and the history of transportation in Berkeley. 

“Imagine what Berkeley was like a long time ago, when there were no cars,” he said. 

Cohen proceeded to tell the story of a family of mice, living in the forest, who to decide to buy a car from a shady used car salesman named Ziggy the Piggy. The purchase sets off a chain reaction of heavy automobile purchases and road building, ruining the forest. 

In the end, the family moves to a new forest and decides to preserve it. The lesson, Cohen said, is clear. 

“There are places around here that are so important,” he said. “We have to restore them and protect them.” 

At the end of the presentation Cohen showed students a fold-up bicycle, ideal for commuters, and a Christiania Trike. The Trike, made and widely-used in Denmark, is a large tricycle with a container that can carry everything from tools to children. 

Kathy Freeburg, curriculum coordinator at Rosa Parks, said Cohen teaches important lessons about alternatives to automobile transportation – lessons that kids might spread. 

“They can bring the message home to their families,” Freeburg said. 

David Ceaser, gardening teacher at Rosa Parks, said the presentation fits in with his larger effort to encourage a bicycle culture at the school. Ceaser said he hands out trinkets on National Bike-to-Work Day, encourages bicycle use when he discusses fitness and nutrition and sells children low-cost helmets. 

Cohen, who helped start a recycling education program in the Berkeley Unified School District in the early-1990s, made his first BUSD appearance as a transportation educator Tuesday. He said he hopes to expand his work in the district.