Elementary students ride a ‘bike-bus’ to school in Portland

Every Wednesday morning, residents of Portland, Oregon, go to their windows and stand on their front steps to watch a group of about 170 children ride their bikes, the music trailing behind them, sometimes drowned out by the children’s excited chatter . Spectators cheer and take pictures.

“It brings so much joy to so many people,” said Alison Warlitner, whose children attend Alameda Elementary School and join the bike ride each week. “It’s the coolest thing.”

Physical education teacher Sam Balto leads the caravan of children on their collective journey to school starting around 8:10 a.m. He wears a neon yellow safety vest and plays music on a portable speaker.

Warlitner’s two children, ages 6 and 7, roll out of bed on Wednesday mornings, she said, to join the bike caravan to school. Warlitner shared a video of the “bike bus” on TikTok last week, and it has been viewed over 7 million times. She said she thought it touched a nerve because of the sheer joy it spread.

“They just come to school happy,” she said.

The bicycle bus has become the preferred way for students to get to school. The community loves it because it reduces congestion and pollution caused by buses and cars, while promoting physical activity and building community.

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Balto, a native of Chevy Chase, Md., and a teacher for 10 years at schools in DC, Boston and now Portland, has long been interested in the idea of ​​active transportation.

While teaching in Boston, Balto launched a “walking school bus” in 2016. He mapped out a safe route and encouraged students, parents, teachers and community members to join a walk of group to school.

“I’ve seen great success with it,” said Balto, 37. “Kids really love having the chance to walk with their friends, and it was a great way to support students who didn’t have a parent who could walk with them to school.

Balto said the group walk solves several problems, including child inactivity, shortage of bus drivers, morning traffic jams, pollution and safety concerns – as some parents and students are not comfortable with solo rides to school.

“There are tons of research on the importance of physical activity before school,” Balto said, adding that he noticed that morning exercise improved students’ ability to concentrate in class.

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What struck him most about the walking school bus, however, was how it reinforced a sense of community at school.

“When we can give kids more opportunities to connect with their peers, they love it,” he said. “This is how we build stronger, more connected and safer school communities.”

When Balto moved to Portland in 2018, he brought the walking project to his new school. Then the pandemic hit and he started working at Alameda Elementary in the fall of 2021.

In April, to mark Earth Day, he offered to try a bicycle bus, which he saw being gaining popularity in Barcelona. The administrators were enthusiastic on board.

He also participated in National School Bike Day. It’s that idea basically.

“This inaugural Earth Day event was an extremely successful event,” said Matt Goldstein, Director of Alameda.

The bikebus was also an opportunity for students to learn more about climate change and how it can help. “It turned out to be a really cool, actionable item for kids and adults alike,” he said.

The whole school was invited to join the ride and about 75 students showed up, many of them bringing their parents to help the chaperone.

Having run several walking school buses in the past, Balto was surprised that the bike bus had an even stronger effect.

“The bikes provide a sense of freedom and joy that I never expected,” he said.

Given its success, they decided to do it again – and again and again. It quickly became a weekly Wednesday ritual at school, and by the end of the school year, around 120 students were taking part each time. Today, more than 170 children, nearly 30% of the student population, meet every Wednesday morning, ready to ride. Goldstein also participates.

“The energy and the sense of community and the smiles, the day is a little different than other days,” Goldstein said.

Every Wednesday around 8 a.m., children and parent volunteers gather at two meeting points, depending on where they live. Balto has mapped out two routes – each about 1.5 miles long – and the groups meet in the middle. Both rides are entirely on a neighborhood greenway, which is a route intended for walking and cycling. Parents wait at major level crossings to stop the bike bus until there is a break in car traffic.

There is still “a good adult to child ratio”, Balto said, adding that even if they stay on a designated cycle path, “there is safety in numbers”.

The school community provides bicycles to any student who does not have access to them, Balto said. He also contacted local cycling organizations, with the aim of donating bikes to students in need at other schools in the city.

“At other schools there is a greater need for support,” said Balto, who shares videos from the bike bus on social networks, hoping it will inspire other schools. “These videos really touch something in people. There is a sense of joy and freedom they see with kids riding bikes, but it also causes them to stop and think about how we can do student transportation differently.

“My goal is to raise awareness about active transportation and also change the way we fund student transportation,” Balto continued, adding that relying on parent volunteers to facilitate bike buses is unfair and unsustainable. . “Just as we have infrastructure for buses, we need to create infrastructure around active transportation.”

Ian Downard, who has two children – aged 8 and 10 – at school, helps lead the group every Wednesday.

The concept “really touched me,” he said. When the project started in the spring, “people were so hungry for community.”

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“When we ride a bike-bus, people come out of their homes and look at us. It’s kind of like a parade,” Downard said. “It’s palpable, the excitement in the neighborhood and the community, and the joy that everyone feels just seeing the kids go to school, be happy and exercise.”

Downard brings his 65-pound goldendoodle, Phoebe, with him for the ride. He ties it in a basket on the back of his bike.

“The dog is definitely a mascot for the bike-bus,” he said.

As a parent, he has taken note of the advantages of the bicycle bus, especially for children.

“Not only do they love riding the bike, it puts them in a great frame of mind to learn,” Downard said. “The whole thing is such a delight. It’s nothing but kindness.

Since the start of the bike-bus, Balto has noticed groups of students going to school together on non-bike-bus days, which “has been really amazing to see,” he said.

“When you get students and parents out of their cars and into the community,” Balto said, “that’s where the magic happens.”

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