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Nearly 200 kids in Portland, Oregon join a weekly bicycle ride to school, instead of relying on buses or drop-offs. The fun-spirited, pedal-powered convoys have drawn nationwide attention and the teacher behind them says they have many benefits.
An Oregon physical education teacher has figured out how to get nearly a third of the students at his school to bike from home once a week, and he’s attracted thousands of supporters around the country doing it.
Sam Balto says he was just trying to get kids more chances to exercise when he started the “bike buses” every Wednesday morning at Alameda Elementary in Portland. But his videos of dozens of kids traveling in a big pack through neighborhood streets have taken the idea far beyond the city.
In the clips, the kids take over the streets under the watchful eye of parents and other adults. People wave and cheer as the bikes coast past driveways and over speed humps. Balto blasts upbeat music from the likes of Harry Styles, The Weeknd and Bruno Mars, while yelling encouragement. More kids join the throng as it goes along. Then, toward the end, a handful of older kids break away to finish the journey at top speed. Wave after wave of cyclists follow.
It is nothing like the car-choked frustration of drop-off at many elementary schools. On Twitter and TikTok, users talk about how they can’t stop smiling while watching it. More than a few say they even cried.
“Once people see it, they see the joy of the children, and it snaps something in us,” Balto says. “We all remember where we were when we learned how to ride a bike… So it touches something from our childhood, that beautiful natural joy that you get when you’re on a bicycle.”
Last spring, the trips attracted about 75 kids a week. Now it’s up to about 170 students. Balto’s videos have appeared in TV news stories around the country, and one has been viewed more than 590,000 times on TikTok.
But Balto is interested in more than just generating feel-good moments. He is interested in changing how people go to and from school as a way of improving their physical health, strengthening communities and improving the environment.
In many cases, he says, that could mean organizing “walking school buses,” something he did while he started as a teacher in Boston seven years ago. It’s the same concept of the bike bus, only kids walk as a crowd on a predetermined route to get to school. In Boston, the students came along three different routes and converged at the school. When groups arrived, they would cheer on the groups that followed.
The concept of walking school buses has been around for decades, but Balto helped start them in Boston with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies as a way to add physical activity for students. The students there would typically get physical education class once a week for 45 minutes, plus a short recess every day. That fell short of recommendations from health experts, Balto explained.
Balto moved to Portland and started walking school buses at his first school there, too.
“I never got into this to be an environmentalist. I never got into this to improve students’ academics. I was just trying to get them more physical activity,” he says. “But it touches on all of those things. I call the walking school bus or a bike bus your Swiss Army knife. What’s your biggest problem? I guarantee the walking school bus or the bike bus is going to fix it.”
Balto’s first bike bus came in April for Earth Day, after advocates in Barcelona and San Francisco started similar efforts in their cities. The bike bus attracted more participants in the neighborhood where Alameda is located than in other schools Balto had worked at, because there were more single-family homes along the way that made owning and using a bike for kids more practical.
(It would have been hard, Balto notes, to ask kids who lived on the third floor of an apartment building in Boston to carry their bikes up and down the stairs on the way to and from school.)
In fact, much of the route that the bike bus takes is along a “greenway,” a kind of specially designated road in Portland designed to be bike-friendly, with speed bumps and signage to alert motorists.
Kids gather at one of two meeting spots. Two or three adults lead the way, and eventually the groups converge for the last mile.
The bike bus reduces the stress of parental drop-offs with cars. Many parents drop their kids off in cars, he notes, because they think the roads are unsafe. But the reason they think the roads are unsafe is that there are too many cars. The bike buses provide a safe way for kids to get there without making the streets more dangerous.
Balto says when many parents first hear of bike buses, they worry that their kids won’t want to take part, because the children aren’t otherwise into biking.
But Balto says that hasn’t been a problem, because kids enjoy the social aspects of the ride as much as the physical activity.
“There’s a sense of FOMO [fear of missing out]. There’s the peer pressure and wanting to be with their friends. Kids love to be social,” he says. It’s apparent from watching the videos. “Tons of kids will ride with their parents, but then just like dip out and leave their parents in the dust, because they see their friends. We just never consider how important kids getting to see their friends is.”
Balto hopes the bike buses open the door to more permanent changes to encourage kids to get to school with active transportation.
But current state policy in Oregon only allows school districts to spend transportation money on transporting kids by bus, not by, say, buying bikes or paying people to lead bike buses or walking school buses, he says. He warns that relying on volunteers like himself to organize and lead the bike buses is “inequitable and unsustainable.” As a parent with young kids, Balto says, he might only be able to keep leading the routes through the end of the year. “I’m not going to do this my whole life,” he says
“If there’s an infrastructure to pay somebody new to do this on a regular basis, like we pay bus drivers, this becomes a form of transportation that’s reliable,” Balto says.
Given the amount of money state and local governments already spend on transportation, he says repurposing those dollars could have profound effects
“We can absolutely provide every kid with bike education, pedestrian education, provide them with a bicycle, teach them how to ride bikes, and get them to school, on their own,” he says, “and you would just see incredible benefits.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.