Urban Tribe - Ride with your kids in front.

At Beach School, biking and walking makes a stronger community

Posted by on September 13th, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Rep. Jim Oberstar visits Beach Elementary School -6

Beach principal Tom Breuckman.
(Photos © J. Maus)

The first thing you notice upon walking into the main entrance if Beach School in north Portland is a Safe Routes to School map with a listing of locations and times for catching a bike train. The placement of that map isn’t an accident. This is a school that embraces biking and walking.

There are a lot of schools in Portland where biking and walking flourish, but Beach deserves a second look, not only for the way their school community has come together to push for change from the bottom up, but also because just a few years ago, its administrators banned biking altogether.

Later this week, I’ll round up some of the engineering and policy improvements that have recently happened at the school. It’s an amazing story about dedicated parents, supportive administrators, and a strong partnership with the City of Portland. But today, I want to share a bit of a recent chat I had with the school’s top administrator.

“When you come and drop kids off in a car, you have to go through extended extra effort to meet the teacher, or to say hello to other parents and families on the playground. When you ride your bike, it’s that much easier.”
Tom Breuckman, principal

Around the corner from that map in the hallway, is the office of the school’s principal, Thomas Breuckman. While Breuckman is quick to defer credit to the dedication of parents who have done all the legwork, he’s still the guy at the top who has to approve everything and it’s his name at the bottom of letters that get sent home.

Before the first day of school last Tuesday Breuckman sent a letter to all Beach families that made it crystal clear where he (and the school) stands on transportation. Under the heading, “When You Bring Your Child To School”, the letter listed four recommendations. “Walk or bike to school or ride public transit, as frequently as possible” was the first recommendation, followed by carpooling with neighbors, and then “Stop a few blocks from school and walk from there.”

This is an amazingly strong endorsement of biking and walking from a public school principal.

Rep. Jim Oberstar visits Beach Elementary School -15

Bike racks buzz at Beach.

I sat down with Breuckman yesterday and asked him to share the primary motivation behind his firm encouragement of biking and walking. His response surprised me:

“It’s a good question and it may not be the reason that most people think, but really my primary reason has to do with community. When I first came here I wasn’t all that familiar with Safe Routes to School. I was aware of it, but not intimately. I hadn’t worked at a school where that had been in place. I thought, ‘Oh fun. Interesting. Cool. Not a bad idea,’ but not much more.

And then I watched what happened — and it involves the people who are a part of this community like Laurie Paulsen, Bryn Dearborn, the PTA President had such energy and worked so hard at communicating and making it possible for families to do this.

There’s no doubt about it that it’s wonderful for childhood obesity, it’s wonderful for having kids a little more awake before they come to class; but for me, watching the community come in, watching the bike trains roll in together, those were fabulous, that’s what makes a school something people will remember.”

You see the trips to and from school as an opportunity to build community that’s not there if you’re in a car?

“Yes. When you come and drop kids off in a car, you have to go through extended extra effort to meet the teacher, or to say hello to other parents and families on the playground. When you ride your bike, it’s that much easier.”

The potential for community building that biking and walking provides is not one of the benefits you often hear about. Beach is lucky to have a principal that understands it.

— Stay tuned for my final story (for now!) about Beach Elementary School where I’ll detail the recent engineering and policy improvements they’ve made in order to encourage biking and walking.

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  • BRD September 13, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Jonathan – Thanks so much for talking about the community building aspect of active transportation around schools.

    Small editorial request. Should be Beach School and not Beach Elementary School. The 6-8 graders are sensitive to the Elementary tag.

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  • malka September 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Finally, a story that makes me hopeful for the future!

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  • kiel Johnson
    kiel Johnson September 13, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Great story!

    Schools have been creating so many barriers over the past decades. By increasing security (especially have Kyron… even though you can never be secure enough) and especially using cars to get kids to school we are isolating our schools and the people in them from the community. More people driving makes it less safe to bike/walk to school so even more people start driving. In the end the people who suffer most are the ones going to a school that is disconnected from its community. It is great to see people actively creating organizations and campaigning to reverse this trend.

    I always find this video of people biking to school in the Netherlands an inspiring look at what “could be” if we decided to create it.


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  • bikieboy September 13, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Tom’s a great principal – he was at da Vinci Middle School a few years ago, when my kid was there, and he was fabulous. Beach is lucky to have him…

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  • Vance Longwell September 13, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    Another good way to build community is to NOT move somewhere, and utterly destroy one. That’s a good way to build community too…by not destroying them. Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket…

    Besides, how is taking away people’s freedom to get to and from school by their mode of choice, in any way, helpful to a community? I only whine ’cause of the oblivious hypocrisy. At best, this school is setting out to brow-beat people into adopting a different lifestyle. A thing that is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But, why don’t you just call it that, instead of, “…helping the community.”? Yeah, the distinction DOES make the difference because we’re talking about controlling people.

    Good gravy am I glad I didn’t have kids.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 14, 2010 at 9:06 am


    I know, the fact that there are non-native Portlanders that live here and are involved in activism/advocacy/politics really bugs you. not sure what people are supposed to… move here and just STFU?

    On another note… Where has someone’s “freedom to get to and from school by their mode of choice” been taken away? Do you realize how hypocritical your perspective here is? What about people that choose NOT to bike because there are so many cars clogging up the front of the school and they’re afraid they will be hit by one of them and/or they don’t want their child exposed to exhaust fumes as they idle for several minutes?

    Car use controls people much more than bike use. What some people are now doing is trying to balance things out a bit more so that the system works for more people and so that more people have a chance to use the system without having their health and safety negatively impacted.

    Also, Portland was full of bikes, horses, and people walking long before it was overrrun with cars… so this could be seen as simply getting back to the way things were ;-).

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  • Vance Longwell September 14, 2010 at 11:41 am

    J #- I resent the hypocrisy quip. Complaining about what I did complain about is not comparable to organizing for purposes of effecting a change in the rules, or laws. I’m just talking, they’re doing. You can’t lay ‘hypocrisy’ on me for that. Having a choice, or freedom as I’m want to conflate, taken away by a rule, or law, is also a vastly different thing than facing a situation where your choices are naturally limited. In your hypothetical people’s decision about what mode they use is a second-order force/thing. In your hypothetical, they’re calculating a personal-risk factor, and deciding not to take a risk. In mine, the relationship between cause, and effect, are uniformly direct. Mode has nothing to do with that either, ’cause there’s just as many people who don’t walk for similar reasons. Where, I ask you, is a reasonable line to be drawn now? In the end, if only one of us get’s to be free, and we’re both trying to be free, what are the moral implications of one desire wining out over another? Zero, my man.

    Look, I’ve said this before… My professional, and social network, is homogenized by mass immigration. The familiar faces, the community, these are all resources my, and everybody else’s, lives are dependent upon. I was but a mere impressionable youth at the time, but I was required, nay forced, to adapt to the way other people in my community conducted their day-to-day. This takes energy, man, and is pretty much about the closest thing to, “…a reason we’re all here…”, as there is to be found. You went through the same thing in your own community, didn’t you? After expending all my humo-energy on this thing, I’m spent. We all would be. Only thing is, now I must start from scratch and re-perform all of the things I did for my original community, only now for a new one. I make one mention of this, by way of recompense, and all I here about are the so-called natives my ancestors supplanted 500 years ago.

    “Car use controls people much more than bike use.”

    Precisely J. I’ve been a motorist a long time. In that time, I’ve never felt I’ve been fully serviced by our highway system. Furthermore, the presence of but one ‘traffic-jam’ is all the evidence I need to assert this opinion as fact. It is the lack of infrastructure that is the car’s only real constraint. The type of control you speak to only exists because of this condition. And if it’s all about cars controlling us, then what say you to the FACT car-use can increase your potential income exponentially? By advocating the demise of the personal automobile, aren’t you throwing 33% of this country’s citizens under a bus in order to manifest your desires? You would at once make cars increasingly inaccessible to the lower class, pay lip service to protecting their interest in the market, and ultimately only succeed in increasing the price index via massive increases in the price-index. Again, who suffers the most from artificial inflation.

    If we observed reality, and gave one runny poo about poor people, you couldn’t help but conclude it would be way better to subsidize personal transportation, instead of mass-transit.

    Okay, now you’re gonna talk about, “…it’s a process…”, “…an ongoing thing…”, blah, blah. Yeah, gas is $3.00 a gallon today, like in reality and shit. You really think your ordinary Mexican even cares to bother to decipher whatever the heck it is ya’ll are up to? Don’t you think they are going to observe the artificial, false, pressure on market forces, assign blame, then take it out on me because I happen to have the same color of skin as you? You know, ’cause they can’t breach your gated-community walls, yet can penetrate my card-board box as though not there?

    Nah, I ain’t buying this lily-white thing. Check it. If you and I and our respective families are recreating at the beach one day… I’m sitting there on my blanky, watching the surf, when all of a sudden this other family lays their blanky down two feet from mine. Especially galling considering we’re the only ones on the beach. Do you really expect me NOT to say something?

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  • brd September 14, 2010 at 11:49 am


    If you come visit Beach you will realize nothing is limited and everybody is free to do what they want.

    This is evidence by the reconfiguration of the school parking so more people could drive and drop off their kids in a safe manner.

    The school made a decision over the summer that if the parking lot was not reconfigured then traffic patterns would not be changed.

    Even though your last post was a little too heady for brain you should visit and see how ALL modes of transportation are supported.

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  • Suzanne September 14, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    My two kids go to Beach and we participate in the bike train. The changes that have been made to the traffic patterns around the school have made it much easier for people using all modes of transport to come and go and are not just a benefit to bicyclists/walkers. It used to be a total cluster-f with cars trying to navigate narrow streets in both directions. Now there is a free flowing vehicle drop off/ pick up area that is easier for the drivers and safer for everyone.

    No one is forced to walk or bike, but people are encouraged to do so. This helps the kids health-wise as well as making them more alert in the mornings. This helps the teachers do their job. It helps the parents since their kids are healthier and participating in a positive activity. It helps the residents around the school since it reduces the vehicle emissions being spewed. And it even helps those who want or need to use a car every day since the amount of car traffic has been greatly reduced.

    Vance- I don’t get your argument that this is destroying community or taking away freedoms. The community part is apparant from the article and from observing the interactions of the students and parents in the mornings and afternoons. I honestly have no idea where “freedom” comes into the picture.

    I agree that motor vehicles are great tools and essential for the movement of goods in our current society. That is (partially) why our society subsidizes their use and infrastructure to a ridiculous amount. The price of gas doesn’t come close to the true cost of providing vehicle infrastructure.

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  • random_rider September 14, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    The community building part of the bike train has implications beyond building Beach’s community. For the past two days I have had quick greetings and “way to goes” with the Sabin bike train as we passed each other on the Going Street Bike Boulevard. It feels like we are part of a larger Portland Community who is willing to try knew things and find real ways to improve our quality of life. I have also taken the opportunity to share our bike train successes with my friends all around the U.S. (and even some international folks) and they are GREEN with envy.

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  • Vance Longwell September 14, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    brd #8 – Duly noted. I’m way off-topic, and re-arguing past arguments, deploying clumsy metaphors, and in general not really putting forth a cogent position. My apologies. Allow me a different ‘tack.

    What business is it of anybody’s, let alone a school, private or otherwise, how people choose to get to school? If you are responding to demands from your patrons, then same question to them. More abstraction, I can only hope you follow my point. Not that it’s any great-shakes, mind you.

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  • random_rider September 14, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Vance- I think the school does have a legitimate interest here for a number of reasons. The car traffic congestion at Beach was a real problem in terms of hassle and safety for parents/students arriving and leaving as well as for any other person trying to navigate the congestion surrounding the school on all sides. Reducing the number of automobiles during peak times benefits everyone.

    Also, as has been mentioned earlier, biking and walking are good for the kid’s health and their ability to focus and learn. Promoting an active lifestyle has benefits that will pay off in the long term too. Plus, auto traffic flow is much smoother for those who choose to drive.

    Basically, the traffic changes and the promotion of non-automotive transportation are a benefit to many and a hinderance to none.

    I really don’t see how this could be controversial in any way whatsoever.

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  • Red Five September 14, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    This is all fine and dandy in the warm summer months. Is this still effective when it’s cold, dark, and wet?

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  • rrandom rider September 15, 2010 at 9:51 am

    There are fewer cyclists, but still some dedicated year-round riders. The bike trains keep some people riding who would otherwise drive when the weather changes. Plus, I would imagine there is a safety factor with increased visibility of a group of riders rather than two or three. If that is not entirely accurate, it is in fact the perception of some of the riders. That feeling of security is a huge influence on whether people ride or not.

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  • jim September 15, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    how safe is it to try and pass a bike train while driving compared to passing 1 or 2 bikes at a time?

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  • jim September 15, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    How do they handle stop signs? Do they all stop? Do they at least look if they roll through a stop sign? Kids might have a false sense of security riding in the train which could be a dangerous thing. remember they are just kids, no experience, poor judgement

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  • Chris Sullivan September 19, 2010 at 11:02 am

    As a many-year parent of Beach School, and one who drives and bikes depending on what my schedule allows, I can say decidedly that both modes are better served by the new arrangement, particularly automobiles.

    Drivers now have a circular route where the students are greeted warmly by teachers and staff at the drop-off point. No more hectic multi-direction traffic and turnarounds while dodging peds and bikes. Most drivers haven’t grown accustomed to the new drop-off location and still use Concord. As a result, biking there is still tricky at times, but far less so that it used to be.

    Props to Mr. Breuckman for seeing this through.

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  • wsbob September 19, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Bike trains could be a great force in building community. The bike trains likely are, or should be…escorted by people knowledgeable in the ways of negotiating the streets as vulnerable road users.

    With the kids all together in bike trains on a regular basis, these escort/instructors will be in a great position to introduce young people, the safest and most responsible ways to ride bikes on the road with heavier vehicles.

    The bike train website says bike trains generally only run one day a week. Why not everyday?

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  • jim September 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    well put wsbob

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