How to start a Bike Train to help kids bike to school

What is a Bike Train?

A bike train is a group of students and parents or volunteers who ride to school together, kind of like a carpool, but for people on bikes.  Some great things about Bike Trains include:

  • Parents can share transportation responsibilities
  • Reduce congestion around school by reducing the number of cars on the road
  • Encourage healthy physical habits
  • Build community
  • A regular schedule helps get students to school on time
  • Creates joy and independence

She provided me with a bunch of resources, including this helpful step-by-step toolkit.

We regularly rode to school before starting this activity.  With the help of Oakland's Slow Streets, we'd already been able to realize some of the above benefits.  We'd see familiar faces on bike or on foot on the way to school.  The ride to school featured a good dose of invigorating exercise in the brisk air, and we've seen friendships grow due to repeated positive interactions together, on a bike.  Our child has become a much stronger rider, and other children have grown stronger as well.  The kids joyfully sprint up a hill that they used to have to walk up.

How do kids get to school?

I am still surprised by the number of students who are driven to school in private vehicles.  I remember spending hours of my childhood on the school bus and a lot of the good and bad that came with it.  In many areas, such as in Oakland, CA, few students take the bus to school at all.  According to a fairly recent assessment, about 55% of Elementary, Middle, and High School students in Alameda County arrived by private vehicle (hand tallies performed by Safe Routes to School).  About 26% walked, 11% carpooled, 3% biked, 2% took the bus, 2% took transit.  COVID has probably drastically reduced the carpooling percentage.

"Colonized by the car"

We received many warnings from our school administration about parking difficulties and car traffic and safety when in-person school resumed earlier this year.  There were several suggested mitigations: Drive to school earlier. Park your car farther away.  Drive safely and predictably.  Drive to the drop-off zone where volunteers help escort students from their cars to the school yard.  These are all helpful tips.  But they all are car-based, and don't do anything to affect the primary cause of traffic: the number of cars driven.

Antonia Malchik recently wrote a somber article about how focus on the car has hurt our collective ability to imagine other ways of life:

Our views of how we get places is so entangled with driving that it’s rare to find regular drivers who can envision a car-free life. Who can see their own community as a place where a child could roam to school or a friend’s house without fear of being run over. Our collective minds have been colonized by the car.

-Antonia Malchik

Morning drop-off on kindergarten rodeo day by Lars Ploughmann https://flic.kr/p/UhMoqA
Morning drop-off on kindergarten rodeo day by Lars Ploughmann https://flic.kr/p/UhMoqA

Can we use less cars?

It was hard to read about the problems with drop-off traffic and potential solutions without seeing ones that reduce the number of automobiles on the road.  It's easy for us to imagine getting to school without a car, since we do not own one, but we know this is not typical.  Not everybody lives close enough to school.  Also, some parents need to drop their children off on their drive to work.

Our built infrastructure heavily favors automobile speed and efficiency above other factors.  And we aren't completely car independent: we still rent a car and get rides from others from time to time.  I estimated (with school district data as a source) that 50% of families live within 1 mile, and 70% live within 1.5 miles, and an impressive number of students already walk to school.  I hope that this can be improved upon even more, so that walking and biking can become even more viable options.

Safe Routes to School: An organization that promotes healthy walking and biking to school

I filled out a form with Alameda County Safe Routes to School to learn about resources that could make it easier to promote other travel options.  Alameda County Safe Routes to School is a locally funded program that helps communities walk and bike safely to school.  A coordinator suggested that I try to coordinate a "Bike Train" to school.

How do you start a Bike Train?

I felt pretty intimidated at first.  I had organized bike rides before, but they were either with only adults, or I didn't yet know who to talk to within the school or parent community to spread the word.

1. Research: What are other examples of bike trains?

I looked for other examples of bike trains:

  • Pt Chev Bike Train - A daily bike train in New Zealand.  They are super organized, have a published map and schedule and safety rules and procedures.  This was a wonderful template.
  • LA Bike Train - No longer operating, but this bike train provided a way for adults to commute by bike to work together.
  • Hood River Bike Train - (photos) - Megan Ramey operates the coolest bike train that I've seen pictures of.  They have multiple routes, with a map and multiple timetables.
  • Barcelona Bicibus - Hundreds of students have been rolling to school together along 18 bicycle lines and 12 schools.  They have more than 300 students riding to school per week.

Hood River Bike Train

Megan created some beautiful maps and time tables for the Bike Train in Hood River, Oregon.

Bicibus in Barcelona

There are an incredible amount of children riding with the Bicibus in Barcelona, Spain.  Apparently, originally they were asked to shut it down by police due to perceived safety issues.  Parents persisted, and now the Bicibus has a police escort.

I roughly followed the steps in the Alameda County Safe Routes to School toolkit.  I don't want to just copy their guide, so I'll just add my own experiences to the steps they already had laid out.  I had to do things in a slightly different order.

2. Promote the Program

In order to figure out the scope of the Bike Train and where routes could be, I needed to find out where potential riders lived.  I assumed that clusters of students could then be led by one or more parent route leaders.  The biggest issue I had was that our family was fairly new at the school (due to a mostly-online COVID) year and I didn't know who to reach out to to get the word out.

Things fell into place when I was connected to the right people.  Alameda County Safe Routes to School provided a nice Google form and a flyer, and I wrote a small paragraph for the email newsletter.   I learned where I could post flyers as well.

I asked some of the Safe Routes to Schools coordinators I was in touch with and others who ran the program at other schools for tips.  I think one of my learnings was that each school is run quite differently, and there may be a different path one needs to take to make the Bike Train happen due to this.

The email newsletter seemed to be the most effective way to reach people, and the Google form had all of the information that I needed to start creating routes.

(If you're interested, the Google form asked: Name, Phone, Email, Nearest cross streets/Address, Interested in volunteering?, Child's name)

3. Recruit Route Leaders

We live a little farther away from our Elementary school than most others, so a lot of the addresses were not too far from our route to school.  That meant that I got to be the route leader for the first ride 🙂

I'd like to continue doing the Bike Train, at a frequency of maybe once per month.  Parents could probably rotate duties, but all of the parents helped keep everything going as smoothly as we could manage.

4. Establish Routes

I used Google My Maps to map family locations, and outline potential routes.  I created 3 route options, each with its own pros and cons.  One route avoided a busy retail strip, but was in a bike lane alongside freeway-bound traffic.  Another was the most direct, but followed that busy retail strip for a few blocks.  And the other involved riding on the sidewalk and merging onto a road with a skewed/acute angle intersection which resulted in higher traffic speeds and lower visibility.  I asked for feedback from parents and we eventually chose the route that included the retail strip.

My child and I started riding the route, and timed how long it took to reach important intersections.

5. Pair with Bicycle Safety

Alameda County Safe Routes to Schools provides resources for helping students learn to safely and confidently ride their bicycles.

  • Bike Rodeo - The nonprofit organization Cycles of Change administers a bike rodeo for kids.  They help students perform normal safety checks on their bike and helmets, and learn handling and signaling techniques.  Rodeo staff draw an simulated course on pavement for students for practice riding around curves and taking turns at intersections.  They also provide helmets and bicycles for students who did not come with their own.
  • Alameda County BikeMobile - A big barrier to being able to ride a bicycle is having one that functions properly.  BikeMobile staff provide a mobile repair shop and also teach kids and adults how to perform repairs themselves.
  • Bike East Bay Family Cycling Workshops - I believe these are pretty similar to the Bike Rodeo but are generally open to the public.  They are put on by Bike East Bay.  I attended one of these with my child, who was excited about participating because of the free gift participants received.  It was a very useful class because I think children can respond better to bike "teachers" rather than parents for information about bike skills and how they can safely ride their bike on streets shared with car traffic.

I haven't yet been able to schedule a Bike Rodeo or a BikeMobile visit, but hope to work with our elementary school to do so this school year.

6. Hop on the Train

My biggest worry was that the ride would become unsafe due to some interaction between the bike train and automotive traffic.  This turned out to not be the case, I think in large part due to the high number of parents involved.  Any child that had difficulty riding in a straight line or looking out for hazards was quickly tended to by a parent.

We passed by a lot of students walking to school near the end of the ride and were greeted with excited kids who marveled at how many people rode their bikes.  Some of the more experienced student riders were able to remain patient, after some instruction, and slow down a bit to keep the group together.

 

Ride a bike to school on the bike train

 

We filled out the main bike rack and take up most of one of the secondary bike racks.  This felt like a great accomplishment!

 

Full Bike Racks

I sent out a list of rules, tips, and guidelines to parents for their children before the ride, and tried to repeat them to the best of my ability on the ride itself.  I augmented the Safe Routes to Schools list a bit with a few of my own rules:

Things to bring (other than the bike, of course):

  • Helmet
  • Lock & key (if leaving the bike at school for the day)
  • Weather appropriate clothes
  • Your kid's backpack & water bottle (many have forgotten, and tears have been shed!)
  • I'll have a small set of tools with me if any quick mid-ride fixes or adjustments are needed.

General Bike Train guidelines

  • Be on time, as we probably can't wait too long at each stop to get everyone to school on time
  • Students should stay behind the front leader and in front of the caboose "leader"
  • Students should cross as a group at large intersections
  • Be aware of car traffic, especially at driveways and intersections
  • Respect each other, neighbors and the neighborhood

General safety tips

  • Kids should wear helmets
  • Make sure your bike works before the ride
  • Avoid the door zone
  • Ride single file (when not on Slow Streets)
  • Stop at signs and lights
  • Yield to people walking
  • Let others know when you are slowing, turning or stopping by calling out or hand signaling

I felt that calling out was particularly important, because in my experience, most kid crashes during group rides had been somehow related to kids riding too close together or colliding by mistake.

What the experts say

I hope to add more information here as I learn more from others who have run great bike train programs.  If you've successfully run one and would like to contribute, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page:

  • How did you start?
  • Do other parents ride with you? What's the parent to kid ratio?
  • How safe does the infrastructure feel?  Are there parts that made you feel really nervous to ride with kids at?
  • Do you receive pushback from the community?  Other drivers?  There is only one major route to our school, and despite the fact that we have a right to use the road also, it does not feel good to see a long line of cars behind us.

Alternatively, if you have questions, I'd be happy to help to the best of my ability!

I’m trying to make it easier for families to ride bikes together by sharing experiences and developing helpful products.

Or follow along for updates:

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