Get a crew. One adult is not enough to have a safe bike bus, so another parent volunteered to serve as the “rear axle,” the driver who stays at the back of the group to watch for stragglers and steer oncoming vehicles. Then I wrote to a few friends to go to the center and catch all the squirrel babies. According to Megan Ramey, a Safe Routes to School activist and bike bus driver from Hood River, Oregon, the ideal ratio is one adult to four children.
Plan your route. Ideally, the walking or cycling bus route covers children who live about a mile from the school—far enough away that walking was problematic, but too close to be picked up by a regular school bus. Our school administrator gave us a student address card; I also started aggressively approaching other cycling parents and getting their phone numbers. In addition, Portland has several neighborhood, or streets that favor walking and cycling, with speed bumps, detours, and lots of signs painted on the street to create a safer environment. Many cities have turned stretches of roads into green lanes or “slow streets” during the Covid-19 pandemic. If your city has done this, consider these routes when figuring out how and when to get to school.
Talk to children. Critical mass and other activist organizations organizing large-scale group bike rides have come up with many ways to drive cars. One is “plugging” where one or two cyclists block an intersection, stopping cross traffic until every cyclist has passed it safely. With young children, however, it’s best to leave it as the main one. The bicycle bus must be parked to the right of the road and children must be told not to ride in front of the bus driver. Most importantly, adults should keep their cool and not worry if the child is too busy playing to give him so much attention.
Just show. We are all working parents, we are all busy, and kids are unpredictable. And right now, kids of all ages are suffering from waves of respiratory illnesses like RSV, the flu and, of course, Covid. We launched our bike bus in October and while there were weeks with 20 kids, there were other weeks when everyone was sick. Every week, rain or shine, I send a text to the Bike Bus group, reminding everyone of the upcoming schedule. People should be able to count on you to send their children to school.
When I spoke to other activists who have run their own bike and walking buses, I was shocked at what it means to different people to start or drive a bike bus. For Luke Bornheimer, San Francisco’s bike bus manager, it’s important to see kids taking control of their lives in a way we simply haven’t seen since the start of the pandemic. That’s probably why people get emotional when they see it.
“Children are really brave, smart and strong, and they get it,” says Bornheimer. “They learn how to drive responsibly and have fun. We just give them that opportunity.”