We all know about the world-famous bike bus at Alameda Elementary School by now: the massive and joyous troupe of kids led by P.E. teacher-turned-influencer Sam Balto who fill up the NE Klickitat Greenway every Wednesday morning. Well, the Alameda bike bus is still going strong — and we’re happy to report that it has had a ripple effect throughout the city.
There are bike bus or walking school bus programs at schools all over the Portland area. I recently joined a couple of them, and talked to the organizers of a couple more.
By my count, there are 10 bike bus or walking school bus programs across the Portland region: James John, Cesar Chavez and Sitton elementary schools on the north Portland peninsula. There are also programs at Rose City Park, Creston-Kenilworth, Maplewood and Metzger (Tigard) elementary schools Tigard as well. And I’m sure there are even more! (Let me know and I’ll add them to the list.)
Balto wasn’t the first person to start a bike bus in the Portland region — Kiel Johnson started BikeTrain PDX back in 2010 after interning with the City of Portland’s Safe Routes to School program, and Megan Ramey has been conducting the Hood River Bike Train since 2020 — but thanks to his knack for online content creation and his persistence and dedication for helping the bike bus movement grow, he has certainly led this wave of new programs across the city.
Southeast Portland (Sunnyside and Abernethy)
Aaron Stoertz is one of the parents who started the bike bus at Abernethy Elementary School. He said Balto provided crucial insight with his advice for getting it started, and after Stoertz visited the Alameda bike bus with his daughter, he felt confident about being able to replicate it a few miles away at Abernethy.
“[Going to the Alameda Bike Bus] helped so much. I got exactly how you need to cork the streets and how to stop and start the music and just all these little logistics things,” Stoertz told me. “It just gave me a lot of peace of mind to like see it all in action.”
Alida Cantor, who started the bike bus at Sunnyside Environmental School, expressed a similar sentiment about seeing Balto’s content on the internet.
“All the tips for route planning and stuff were really helpful as we were kicking it off. And it was encouraging to realize that it wasn’t actually very hard to start,” Cantor said. “We just had to pick a day and a meetup time and share it with people.”
I joined the Abernethy Bike Bus on Wednesday morning — which happened to be a particularly freezing and wet morning — and I was amazed by what I saw. The kids held their annual “Tour de Ladd” later that day, so more people were bringing their bikes to school than normal, and the group was huge: more than 100 kids had joined by the time we arrived at school.
We started the ride at Joe Bike on SE Cesar Chavez Blvd and Lincoln St and headed west on the Lincoln-Harrison Greenway for about 20 blocks, with more and more people adding to the group as we went. The kids were toughing out the cold weather very admirably — I overheard one boy say, “I don’t care if this is what it takes to have fun and ride my bike.”
Stoertz told me that the bike bus has taken on celebrity status at Abernethy.
“There’s been a huge amount of excitement about it. I walk on campus now and people want to talk about it, to tell me they’re riding next week. There’s a lot of excitement and identity that’s forming around it, which is really fun to see,” he said. “And that’s all natural — I haven’t been passing out flyers or anything. People just think it’s a highlight of the week because it’s a super fun way to get to school.”
Cantor said the Sunnyside bike bus brings her a lot of joy, too.
“That’s one of the main reasons I’m doing it — it’s just fun. It leaves me feeling good for the rest of my day,” she told me.
While it’s true that Alameda, Sunnyside and Abernethy are all located in wealthy, central Portland neighborhoods where the city has historically focused their bike infrastructure investments, the bike and walking school bus movement is now expanding out into farther reaches of the city (and even outside of Portland city limits). There could be more of these programs in different parts of the city if there was funding dedicated to it, as a current Oregon House Bill aims to do. Cantor pointed out that parents at the schools in wealthier neighborhoods like Sunnyside are more likely to have flexible jobs that allow them to volunteer time out of their mornings to assist with the bike bus.
“For schools with like less resources or parents with less job flexibility, it would be really nice to get people paid [to lead bike buses],” Cantor said.
North Portland (Sitton, Cesar Chavez, James John)
There are different reasons that schools choose to start bike and walking school bus programs, too. At schools with a wealthier demographic, a lot of the focus is on exercise and environmentalism. At other schools, like Sitton Elementary in north St. Johns, those things are important as well, but the bike or walking school bus programs are targeted at addressing chronic absenteeism and helping kids get to school on time.
This morning, I accompanied the Sitton walking school bus, which is in its second week. This program is led by teachers who come in before school every single day, going above-and-beyond their job description to help kids get to school. Sitton received a donation of two Rad Power electric bikes, and the teachers take them across Pier Park to an apartment complex where about a third of all the students live. After circling the sprawling apartment complex and looking for kiddos who might want to join the walk to school, the group heads back through the park.
Why opt for a walking school bus instead of a bike bus? Abby Peterson, Sitton’s School Climate Specialist and the walking school bus coordinator, said some kids have joined the group by bike occasionally, but a walking school bus makes more sense for Sitton because so many of the kids live so close. Plus, unlike at schools like Alameda and Abernethy, Sitton doesn’t have a secure place for kids to store their bikes during the day, and two kids had theirs stolen recently.
Peterson said sees a difference in how kids act throughout the day after they’ve walked to school. It’s a short walk, but the extra encouragement of going in a group helps to make the trip even easier.
“The mood of kids coming to school is more positive, it helps to build a community,” Peterson said. She told me she’d like to see parents getting paid to help lead the program so they can join the community as well.
“I like to smell the fresh air,” one Sitton third grader told me as we walked through the forested Pier Park.
It is a beautiful way to start a morning!
These programs aren’t just relegated to the city limits, either. Last fall, parent and local bike advocate Shawne Martinez started a bike bus at Metzger Elementary School in Tigard, which he says has been a success so far.
“With some encouragement from both Balto and Ramey, I decided to set up an Instagram account for our bike bus and plan a route. I had some experience helping with the annual Walk and Roll to School Day at our school and decided to follow the same route starting from our local park,” Martinez wrote in an email to BikePortland. He said he handed out flyers to people in the neighborhood and shared information with families at the school pickup line, and the school staff helped promote the bike bus as well.
“We have some amazing families that join us quite often and are a tremendous help. Having to cross the ODOT facility that is SW Hall Blvd has it’s challenges but with safety in numbers and taking the lane where there is no walk/roll infrastructure we have made it work!” Martinez wrote. “I expect participation to increase as the weather warms up and can’t wait to see a hundred (two hundred?!) happy kids riding to school!”
So, what does Balto have to say about the rise of the bike bus? He deferred to a quote from President Barack Obama: “It’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.”
“We are living this quote right now in Portland and around the world with the bike bus movement,” Balto said.