Portland’s bike buses swell on Walk and Bike to School Day

It’s just how kids get to school these days . (Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Bike bus fever has taken hold in Portland. What started with Alameda Elementary School teacher Sam Balto on Earth Day just over two years ago has spread into hearts and minds nationwide. Locally, the phenomenon has led to well over a dozen active bike buses at schools throughout the city, according to BikeBusPDX.org, a site that monitors the outbreak.

In the past week I’ve ridden with three bike buses that ferry kids and parents to Beach, Glencoe and Abernethy elementary schools. They’re all unique, but there’s a shared sense of optimism and excitement that’s infectious and it’s easy to see why this happy affliction is spreading so fast and far.

May is National Bike Month and today is Walk and Bike to School Day, so spirits were high in southeast Portland this morning as Glencoe Elementary School dad Brian Ellin waited for troops to assemble at the corner of SE 61st and Belmont. I knew he was the leader because of his bright yellow “Bike Bus” rain poncho and the big speaker in his rear rack — two items that have become requisite kit for bike bus regulars.

“We have a regular crew that starts here and we pick up people along the way. It’s a good time,” Ellin shared. He and other parent leaders have led a bike bus every Wednesday so far this year. “I think it’s about time to hit the road and get going!” he called out as the clock ticked closer to the morning bell.

Joining the group this morning was Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who’s also a candidate for mayor, was wearing a Portland Fire & Rescue sweatshirt and riding a Trek road bike with matching, waterproof rear panniers. “I usually go down the Springwater Corridor to work,” he shared when I asked if this was his usual route into City Hall. “This is my first bike bus, but my kids used to go to Glencoe so I know these streets really well,” he added, trying to talk while pedaling through a cloud of bubbles and cacophony of bike bells and blaring music. “It’s awesome. It’s so awesome!”

That’s pretty much how everyone feels when they ride through city streets and take the lanes with a huge swarm of kids.

Glencoe ride leader Rob Galanakis corks traffic on SE Stark and 61st.

What’s not awesome is how some car drivers and other road users are less than cordial to the group. Glencoe bike bus leader Rob Galanakis’ smile faded a bit as he pushed ahead of the crowd on SE 61st and took the lonely position of sole corker (someone who blocks car traffic so the bike bus can get through an intersection safely) in the middle of East Burnside.

“Burnside sucks,” Galanakis grumbled at me as he assumed his position. “It’s much better now that it’s lighter in the mornings.” In darker months, Galanakis said the Glencoe Bike Bus takes a less convenient route because getting everyone safely across 61st at Burnside without a traffic signal feels too dangerous.

But this morning, fear and darkness was the last thing on anyone’s mind. As we made our way through lush, green, flower-filled neighborhood streets to the school, groups of 2-3 kids (and sometimes parents, sometimes not), would roll into the street to join the ever-growing mass.

The group, now nearly 40-50 riders strong, made one last, triumphant descent into the Glencoe school campus where bike racks buzzed and school staff handed out free tickets for a Walk and Bike to School Day prize raffle.

As I left Glencoe to meet up with another Bike Bus a few blocks away, I first had to weave through 7-8 cars that had backed up on SE 51st Avenue. The cars, most of them with just one parent in them, took up more room on the street than the entire bike bus.

Cars in front of Glencoe Elementary School.

My next destination was SE 39th and Lincoln, the assembly spot for the Abernethy bike bus. Similar to the Beach bike train, which traces its roots to 2010, families at Abernethy have been riding to school in large groups since (at least) the 2008 Tour de Ladds.

With that leg-powered legacy, it should come as no surprise that Abernethy is now pushing its bike bus into exciting new territory as the first one in Portland to happen every single day. The pilot project began on Earth Day and seems to be going extremely well — if the vibes from parent leaders like Aaron Stoertz are any indication. As kids and parents trickled into the group, he’d yell, “Everyone move up, we’re gonna’ need more room!” in between whoops and hollers in time with the bumping soundtrack. Stoertz is the hype-man every bike bus needs, and his energy is infectious as I noticed a few parents start dancing in the street as worked the crowd.

“The Da Vinci [School] bike bus is coming! Everyone high-five!” Stoertz called out as yet another bike bus from a different school rolled by on a different route.

Moving the bike bus from once-a-week to everyday has been transformative and Stoertz says the frequency has had a very positive impact on the community, “Because now instead of it being a special event, it’s just something that happens everyday.”

The biggest challenge thus far has been coordinating parent volunteers. The group needs a ride leader and at least two corkers every morning. “We’re only a few weeks in, but so far so good. It’s really an experiment and people seem to like it,” Stoertz said.

The life-affirming moment when two bike buses come together and the mass of happy kids on bikes swells.

I’d say that’s an understatement as I watched the group swell as we rolled west on the Lincoln Neighborhood Greenway towards Ladds Addition. Just a few blocks from school at SE Harrison and Ladds Circle, the Abernethy bike bus pauses and waits a few minutes for another bike bus that comes from the SE Clinton Street corridor. The wait was just long enough for Stoertz to address the group. He promoted an upcoming bike fair event and thanked everyone for showing up.

Excitement grew as the Clinton riders emerged from a side-street and came toward the group of Abernethy families — now about 70 riders strong. As the two masses merged there were shrieks of approval and fists pumped into the air from adults and kids alike. Now well over 100 riders strong, the Abernethy-bound crew pedaled wide and deep around Ladds Circle before congestion forced dismounts outside the school campus.

“Where will they put all these bikes?” I wondered as people locked to rows of city-supplied bike racks and organized themselves for the school day.

Savannah Bedford is a college student, Abernethy bike bus intern, and bike bus superfan who’s stoking the spread.

As I watched the pleasant buzz of busy-ness, I bumped into Savannah Bedford. “Are you the Jon who puts on Happy Hour? My professor said I should go to that,” Bedford said, before I knew who she was. Turns out, Bedford is the Portland State University electrical engineering major hired as an intern by the Abernethy PTA to coordinate the bike bus. She’s the first person to hold this position, and her task is to not just make the daily bike bus grow, but to create a model.

That’s what I find most exciting about what’s happening at Abernethy. Yes it’s a very blessed school where families have more time, money, and access to bike culture and safe streets than other parts of Portland. But the idea Stoertz, Bedford and others are operating with is that what happens here could become a model for other schools in Portland: a turn-key bike bus program.

Bedford loved biking to school as a kid in suburban Beaverton and was so inspired after seeing one of Balto’s bike bus videos on Instagram she wanted to start one to PSU. Then one Saturday she happened upon the BikeLoud PDX table at the PSU Farmers Market and talked to one of the volunteer advocates who encouraged her to join the group’s Slack (online communication) channel. When Abernethy bike bus leaders posted the job, Bedford jumped at the chance. “I was like, I would love to work on a bike bus. So that’s how I got started.”

Getting started is always the hardest part. But once something becomes institutionalized and normal, people forget how life ever happened without it. That’s the hope with bike buses in Portland. First they became popular, then they’ll become routine, and then what?

“We haven’t quite figured out the ride home yet. At the end of the day we’ve got 100 bikes to get home,” Stoertz said, as we spitballed how to solve that problem and dreamt of permanent bike bus route signage and bright yellow lines painted in streets to mark the routes.

I left feeling optimistic because the fundamentals of Portland’s bike community are strong enough to not just resuscitate our old bike trains into modern, viral, fever-inducing bike buses — but to make them even bigger and better in the future.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Mark
Mark
1 month ago

Rob Galanakis “sneered”? I don’t think so.

Sam Balto (Contributor)
Sam Balto
1 month ago

This is awesome Jonathan. Thank you as always for documenting the bike bus journey here in Portland.

Lois Leveen
Lois Leveen
1 month ago

Honestly, I think we need to pin the video clip of the merging bike buses so that we can each watch it every time we need to smile. IT IS SOOOOOOOO AWESOME.

OregonRainstorm87
OregonRainstorm87
1 month ago

let’s give a shout out to all the schools that only have a couple of riders… not every bike bus has 40-70 riders, some only have a handful… small but mighty 🙂

Sam Balto (Contributor)
Sam
1 month ago

Absolutely!! Even 2 or 3 riders makes a difference!!

James
James
1 month ago

I teach PE in SW Portland and am a daily bike commuter. This is on my radar to start next fall. The Westside has its own challenges, but I think by starting small and spreading the joy, we will work it out. Thanks for the reminder!

Sam Balto (Contributor)
Sam
1 month ago
Reply to  James

Reach out to bikebuspdx.org. We can help

Carlsson
Carlsson
1 month ago

Loved seeing the bike bus head down Multnomah Blvd toward Maplewood Elementary. this morning! Thank god for the wands protecing the kids from rush hour car traffic.

Sheilagh A Griffin
Sheilagh A Griffin
1 month ago

So heartwarming to see this Jonathan! Thank you! I rode my kids to Abernethy and we did not have quite as many families riding… I remember having a guest kid join our crew. I also fondly remember the first time my daughter rode home on her own, she was so pumped to ride independently! So fun to see the Safe Routes To School continuing to evolve to an even greater critical mass! <3 <3 <3

John V
John V
1 month ago

Any bike bus content is always appreciated by me. It’s the most hopeful thing going on in this city.

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.
1 month ago

We love to see it. High-fives all around

Andrea Brown
Andrea Brown
1 month ago

I love seeing the morning Abernethy bike bus on Lincoln Street as it passes my house. I never seem to see the returning crew however. I have emailed PBOT twice recently about increased traffic and cars flying up and down Lincoln on the Greenway between 4-6 pm. It’s concerning to me that bike commuters are having to put up with that and that it may be a creeping indication of the decay of inner bike infrastructure here in Portland. I would really like to see another traffic count done on the Lincoln-Harrison greenway and some enforcement showing up now and again to show this is not another stop-sign free thoroughfare for evening auto commuters.