Local Schools Get On Board the Bike Train

By Kaston Griffin

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of American kids either biked or walked to school in 1969, but by 2001, only 16 percent of them did. In comparison, roughly 80 percent of all people traveling to school in the Netherlands do so by bike.

Armed with those statistics, Portland’s Kiel Johnson, a recent college graduate, was looking for a way to make a positive impact on local schools while promoting cycling. After watching a video of Netherlands kids riding to school together, he got the idea of starting a bike train. His resolve was reinforced after hearing of a horror story about a school near Portland, where a long line of parents was dropping off their kids by car.

“One of the parents got frustrated with how slow the line was moving,” he recalls, “so he got out of the line and sped to get by [the other cars]. At the same time two children were crossing the crosswalk and this driver hit both of them.”

 Photo by Kiel Johnson Photo by Kiel Johnson

It seems strange to Johnson that city planners would have designed such a dangerous environment around schools — one that not only stifles kids’ active interactions with their communities, but tacitly condones unsafe school areas at which walking across the street is a risk.

“There is a circle of fear at our schools,” he says, “where one parent decides it isn’t safe to walk or bike ... so they drive their SUV. This makes it even more dangerous, so next you have every parent driving their kid to school, which makes it so it isn’t safe for anyone to walk and bike there.” Johnson’s bike train idea is a way of breaking that circle.

But what are bike trains? To borrow a popular analogy, it’s like a school bus, but instead of driving, an adult volunteer cycles to school on an established route, picking up students — who are also on their bikes — along the way. For the duration of the trip, other volunteers and parents stagger themselves in the line to ensure everyone’s safety. Because such a large group of people rides together, they are more visible and, hopefully, cycling becomes more appealing to everyone involved. It also makes parents more comfortable and encourages new people to try biking to school.

Last April, Johnson approached Laurie Paulson, a parent at Beach School in North Portland, about implementing this new transportation project. It was a challenge because as of two years ago, the Beach student handbook insisted that biking to school was not allowed. After a conclusive initial meeting, Johnson put signs up around the school and talked with classes, but did not manage to create any momentum or pique genuine interest for the project. It wasn’t until Paulson introduced Johnson to Clay Veka, another parent also interested in biking to school, that the project made strides.

“This person lived a 45-minute bike ride away from my house, but every Monday morning I rode out and biked with her and her kids to school. Soon after, Laurie [Paulson] started a bike train from her house, and another parent started one as well.” Eventually the momentum reached a tipping point. Once it became an event, everyone wanted to join. On the last day of “Walk and Bike to School Month” last May, even the principal joined the train of more than 100 people.

 Photo by Kiel Johnson Photo by Kiel Johnson

Johnson also talked with Veka about creating a citywide network of bike trains. She gave him a list of parents who had shown an interest in the program and he quickly initiated contact. Five of them convened, designed routes and created the promotional biketrainpdx.org website. The idea was that once safe courses were plotted and small collectives were created, the bike trains would grow on their own.

Currently, the Portland bike trains focus exclusively on elementary schools and the parents who ride with their kids. Six institutions have become officially involved, providing a train where, on average, 20-30 children ride one day a week. They have attracted more than 650 riders so far this year, and eight more establishments are interested in starting the initiative. Even as winter approaches and volunteers expect a decline in attendance, parents ask him for advice about cycling in the cold, proving they would like to continue year-round.

At all of the schools a parent coordinator helps advertise and connect with others. As the project has become a recognized event, more have volunteered to help lead them. Many of the participating schools offer two or three different routes. Several coordinators have also taken roles much larger than that of bike train leaders and are now advocating for other improvements around their schools.

The bike train idea is spreading. Several people who have heard about them and are not associated with any school have also contacted Johnson to offer their support. Since the project germinated from humble beginnings, its success and impact have surprised and delighted even its creator.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Johnson says. “It is an idea whose time has come. The hardest part is making the bike trains a visible thing, but once you do that everyone wants to join. We use signs, ring bells, play music on speakers and send out lots of school emails. People want more choices to get to school and bike trains provide that.”

The burgeoning popularity of his program has given him a new perspective about how to create meaningful change: “It is a great example of how if people want their communities to be better places, they need to get out there and make it happen instead of waiting for the government or a non-profit to make it happen for them.” Johnson’s project is more proof that one does not need to be part of an organization to create change; they simply have to provide the opportunity.

 Photo by Kiel Johnson Photo by Kiel Johnson

He asserts that bike trains make the community a more vibrant place and encourages parents to interact with each other and their schools. “You are much more likely to walk your child to class and have that quick conversation with the teacher if you are biking together rather then dropping them off in a car. The schools themselves are safer as there are less cars on the road, but kids and their parents are also much more familiar with their neighborhood and surroundings, so if something is out of place they can recognize it.”

In addition, there are the obvious health benefits: kids show up energized, ready to learn after getting some exercise. Teachers occasionally approach Johnson and relay stories of their students’ improved abilities to focus. There is also a great deal of pride among the participants, he boasts, from being able to say, “We are a school that bikes together.” The children think participating in a bike train is fun and feel like a part of something worthwhile.

Johnson firmly believes that his project would continue even if no one were organizing it. People want to have more options to get around, and participating in such a car-centric culture is neither sustainable nor practical.

Since the bike train’s beginnings, there has been enthusiastic support from many sources, including the non-profit group Umbrella, which recently allowed him to join the organization in order to apply for a grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation. Also, the Portland Safe Routes to School program helps him find the right contacts and directs interested parents. Additionally, he has received some press that helped spread the word.

So far, only one frustrated cyclist complained that he was forced to ride around the train because it was particularly large one day. In general, all involved have viewed the project approvingly.

The most difficult aspect for Johnson is waking up early, as he claims he is not a morning person. However, all the wonderful things eclipse the momentary inconvenience.

“My favorite part about doing the bike trains is watching the parents take leadership roles. I still get tingles on the nice weather days when there are 50 of us and all you can see are kids riding their bikes,” he says. “One of my favorite moments was when a girl came up and thanked me for starting the bike train.” Sometimes, he likes to play bike propaganda music from portable speakers as he leads his group. Once, he played a song called “If Cars Were Banned,” and a child came by and said he liked the lyrics.

For Johnson the most exciting aspect about the program is that it naturally attracts community minded people who want to share space, time and a common interest. “I just created a route, meet-up spots and showed up,” he says. “It was very exciting to see people take that opportunity to join me.” Bike trains are fundamentally about creating a new opportunity to bike to school, but also serve to provide a vision for what could be.

For more information, visit www.biketrainpdx.org or contact Johnson directly at either kielij@gmail.com or (206) 850-8084.

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