Episode 110: Back to School with the Bike Bus

Aaron Naparstek: Hey, it’s Aaron with some big news for you. I’m here to tell you that I bought a Rad Power Bike last fall, and I’ve been riding it for almost a year now. And I have to admit, I didn’t really think that I needed an electric bike or that I would use it all that much. I was perfectly happy biking around town on my trusty old acoustic bike. I’d been doing it for years, and it was fine. But Rad Power had a great sale on its website last fall, and of course they’re our sponsor here at The War on Cars, so I figured what the heck? And I got one. And I have to tell you, my Rad Power Bike has become my primary mode of transportation in New York City. I ride it all the time. Long distance trips are literally no sweat. It makes running errands and bringing home groceries incredibly easy. Gives me this nice electric assist, but it’s speed governed like cars should be, and it doesn’t go too fast. And the bottom line? It’s just fun. It’s a pleasure to ride. I will say it’s very sad for my old bike. I checked on it the other day. The tires were flat. The chain was a bit rusty. What are you gonna do? It’s the cycle of life.

Aaron: Go to RadPowerBikes.com/waroncars. Right now you can get $700 off of a RadRover 6. It’s a great bike for back to school, back to work. And there are lots of other great deals there, too. Again, that’s RadPowerBikes.com/waroncars.

Abby: My name is Abby, and I’m in fourth grade.

Doug Gordon: How do you feel when you get to school having biked there?

Abby: I feel more energized sometimes and, like, ready to learn when I ride my bike to school.

Doug: How old are you? What grade are you in?

Ollie: I’m nine, and I’m in third grade.

Doug: What’s your name?

Ollie: Ollie. I’ve also been doing this for the whole time.

Doug: And how do you like it?

Ollie: Amazing.

Doug: Why is it amazing?

Ollie: Because it’s fun, and you get to just pretty much bike.


Sarah Goodyear: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is the sound of a bike bus in Barcelona.

[music playing]

Sarah: If you’ve never heard of a bike bus, or a bicibús, as it’s known in the Catalonian capital of Barcelona, it’s a beautifully simple idea: kids and parents ride their bikes to school along a pre-planned route, picking up classmates along the way just the way a school bus would, except because it’s bikes, it’s way, way more fun.

Sarah: Bike buses have been around for at least a couple of decades, springing up in Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands over the years. But they’ve been having something of a boom lately, rolling out in more and more cities around the world. Social media is part of why. There have been a couple of high-profile videos of bike buses that have gone viral, including one from Barcelona that made the rounds in 2021. That one caught the eye of a phys ed teacher in Portland, Oregon, named Sam Balto.

Sam Balto: When you see the children in the scale of a city like Barcelona, it’s like these kids are really taking up a lot of space. And sort of coming out of lockdown and the pandemic and starting school again, it just, you know, touches something in everyone emotionally. It’s this sense of freedom, of loss, of joy, of, you know, longing for better times, wanting a better future for our children.

Sarah: Sam was inspired to start up a Portland bike bus, and now videos of those rides are going viral, spawning more bike buses in more cities. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to go to Barcelona myself. I got to meet with a whole bunch of people there who ride bikes for transportation and are working hard to make their streets better. They’ve created a whole network of bike bus routes serving multiple schools—many of them running every day of the week. Volunteers work with local officials to make the routes safe, blocking traffic for the few minutes that it takes the bike bus to pass through busy intersections.

Sarah: The folks in Barcelona lent me a bike, and I got to ride along with one of those bike buses. It was a completely exhilarating feeling to ride in a river of elementary school kids, some just five or six years old, through the city’s morning streets, feeling completely safe and free. I talked with some parents who seemed just as into the morning ride as their kids, like Mireia.

Mireia: I have one kid, he’s six years old. And yeah, it’s incomparable. He’s got a lot of energy, like all six-year-olds. [laughs] And sometimes he gets up very cranky, and then at the moment that he gets into the bicibús, he just forgets about it and he gets, like, relaxed and he gets to chat with some of the friends, and it’s—it’s really nice. And obviously, like, even for the adult, like, it fills your heart with joy.

Sarah: Looking back on it, I realize that when I went to Barcelona, I thought I would find a city that had some sort of unique qualification to be a bike bus hotspot. What I found instead was a more familiar reality: despite its famed “superblocks”, which create pedestrian oases in the central city, and an extensive bike lane network, Barcelona is a modern city with all of the problems of a modern city. Which is to say there are a lot of motorized vehicles there, and the people driving them feel entitled to take up a lot of space.

Jaume Balmes: It’s very usual to have people insulting us.

Sarah: That’s Jauma Balmes. He’s a father of two, and one of the main organizers of the bike bus in Barcelona.

Jaume Balmes: I see people with this motorbike, and sometimes from also cars, but it’s not as usual. A big problem in Barcelona is out of motorbikes because they don’t follow any traffic rules, they don’t have any kind of respect.

Sarah: The route I rode with Jaume and about two dozen families back in May went right down the middle of several very wide, large streets in the center of the city’s Eixample section. Kids rode at the front of the pack following some parent leaders. Parents control traffic at the intersections and also rode at the back of the pack. Maybe the most surprising thing about the Barcelona bike bus to me was the police escort that brought up the rear. There were squad cars with their lights on that escorted our bike bus right up to the front door of the school.

Rosa Suri: Even myself, I was not imagining, like, the police every day, every day escorting us to the school.

Sarah: Rosa Suri is another one of the bike bus organizers like Jama and many of the others, she sees improving conditions for kids on bikes in Barcelona as part of a bigger political movement for a better city. She told me that just having the cops play a role in keeping the kids safe is in itself an important step.

Rosa Suri: We do have, like, different levels of the police. This is like the local ones, you know, the ones that are in charge of the transit. So we are saying we are transit. So, I mean, again, is this part of their responsibility that they are having to, you know. So it’s good because we are changing the view of this thing. And as I’m saying, I mean, two years ago it was even myself having meetings with the local police saying this is not going to happen, you know. I mean, they cannot let it happen. So, yeah, we can do it.

Sarah: Sam Balto in Portland agrees that bike buses can change minds—not just of the families participating but of the whole community.

Sam Balto: Bike buses are kind of this gateway drug to safe streets, you know, for kids’ movement. And I think that really people are seeing how important mobility is for children, their independence, joy, freedom, and the bike bus is a tool and a mechanism to create that.

Sarah: We’ll be back right after this message.

Doug: So it’s September, and that means back to school or back to the daily commute or just back to life in general after your summer vacation. Whatever you’re getting back to this fall, you can stay dry when you’re walking and cycling with Cleverhood. Cleverhood makes the best rain gear around, from the bright and colorful Rover Rain Cape to the stylish Urbanaut Trench. And not only do the good folks at Cleverhood support us here at The War on Cars, but they also support all kinds of organizations working to make their communities safer, sustainable and more equitable. That includes Black Girls Do Bike, Streets For all in Los Angeles and the original US Bike Bus in Portland, Oregon. Now through the end of September, listeners of The War on Cars can save 15 percent on anything and everything in the Cleverhood store. Visit Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code FALLBACK at checkout. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars, coupon code FALLBACK. We thank Cleverhood for all they do to support safe streets.

Sarah: Sam and the parents in Barcelona know that cities and towns can’t rely solely on parent volunteers to run bike bus networks. They are actively lobbying for more support from local authorities to ensure that the bike buses are sustainable, but they also all emphasized how exciting it is to see the ideas spreading around the world, powered by ordinary people who just want their kids to be able to move freely through the streets.

Guille Lopez: I think with social media you can really share these ideas that people might think are crazy and they’re like, “Why not? Why can’t we do it here?”


Sarah: Guille Lopez, a Barcelona parent, likes the way the bike bus opens people’s eyes to possibilities.

Guille Lopez: We have music, and kids really enjoy and look forward for going to the bike bus. The powerful thing of bike bus is like, it’s their streets, it’s their city, it’s going to their school, so the fact that for once they are not on the sidewalks and on the margins and they can own their street, that’s very powerful. And that’s the nice thing from bike bus, it’s showing everyone that the street is not owned just by cars and motorbikes, that the street used to be for everyone. And I’m pretty sure eventually it’s going to be back for everyone, not just for cars. I think that’s the nice legacy that we are telling our kids, that it’s their street, it’s their city, it’s their neighborhood, and they have the right also to use it.

Sarah: But the benefits of the bike bus don’t end at the front door of the school. Sam Balto sees how the effects end up rippling through the whole school day and beyond.

Sam Balto: I think it’s so cool that parents will come up to me and be like, “So my son came home today and was like, ”Mom, I need to do the bike bus because it’s good for my independence and it’s good for my physical activity, and I’ll do better in school and get in trouble less if I can be active in the morning.'” And I think as an educator, when you see the joy of children arriving to school walking or biking on a walking school bus or a bike bus versus the everyday chaos of, you know, arrival and dismissal otherwise, you just can’t unsee it.

Sarah: So can bike buses change the world? Maybe not, but they can change individual communities, and you don’t have to be in Europe or even in a city like Portland in the United States to give it a try. People are even organizing super popular bike buses in suburban New Jersey.

Drury Thorpe: All right, kiddos. Can everybody get in their formation, please?

Sarah: That’s Drury Thorpe, a teacher and one of the organizers of the Montclair bike bus, which sees hundreds of kids, parents and volunteers riding to school each Friday morning.

Drury Thorpe: Our bike bus pledge. Repeat after me. I promise to one, wear a helmet.

Children: I promise to wear a helmet.

Man: All right, bike bus, everyone move over.

Drury Thorpe: I’ll look what’s ahead of me and listen to what’s around me.

Children: I’ll look what’s ahead of me and listen to what’s around me.

Drury Thorpe: Ride in a straight line.

Children: Ride in a straight line.

Drury Thorpe: Stop at stop signs and red lights.

Children: Stop at stop signs and red lights.

Drury Thorpe: Ride without racing.

Children: Ride without racing.

Drury Thorpe: Pass carefully on the left.

Children: Pass carefully on the left.

Drury Thorpe: Stop for people walking.

Children: Stop for people walking.

Drury Thorpe: My favorite: be good to my body and honor the Earth by riding my bike.

Children: Be good to my body and honor the Earth by riding my bike.

Drury Thorpe: Awesome. Let’s do this. Ring it in!

Sarah: Let’s hear from some kids that Doug rode with last spring in Montclair.

Abby: My name is Abby, and I’m in fourth grade.

Doug: How do you feel when you get to school having biked there?

Abby: I feel more energized sometimes and, like, ready to learn when I ride my bike to school.

Doug: How old are you? What grade are you in?

Ollie: I’m nine, and I’m in third grade.

Doug: What’s your name?

Ollie: Ollie. I’ve also been doing this for the whole time.

Doug: And how do you like it?

Ollie: Amazing.

Doug: Why is it amazing?

Ollie: Because it’s fun, and you get to just pretty much bike.

Doug: How do you feel when you get to school?

Girl: I feel really happy, and also Fridays, because I do bike bus is basically the only day I get there early before the doors open. And so I feel, like, happy that I get to talk to my friends before I go into school.

Teacher: So this is our first pick up. Kids are allowed to join us anywhere along the way, so at any intersection. But we usually have a good crew right here.

Doug: How many stops do you make?

Teacher: Well, we don’t actually stop the bikes. We just—it’s a slow roll. Gosh, I don’t know. We probably pick up—it depends on the day, but there’s probably five to 10 intersections that we’re getting kids from.

Doug: So it’s like a giant game of, like, blob tag or something like that. It just …

Teacher: Exactly, exactly. You just keep picking them up as we go. Morning, bike bus!

Doug: And you’re a teacher?

Teacher: Yes.

Doug: So what do you see as the benefits of the bike bus?

Teacher: Oh my gosh, they come to school, they’re energized. They’re pumped when they get there. It’s really fun. Hey, bike bus? Let’s ring in our participants. Here we go!

Doug: So Dan, what does it mean for you as a dad to bike with your kids to school?

Dan: It’s just a ton of fun. It’s a great way to start the day. It’s really nice to be able to do this with them because I never got to do this as a kid myself. And it’s a fun opportunity.

Doug: What kind of town did you grow up in?

Dan: Similar town, suburban town. But I rode the bus to school every day, and this was never really on the table for me. It was—it’s nice to be able to do this with them.

Doug: And right now, the bike bus has a ton of parent and volunteer support. Is there a point where you would love to see it—I mean, I know as a parent, I would love it for my kids to be able to do this by themselves. How do you feel?

Dan: Yeah, I think that’s the end goal for me is for the kids to be able to do it by themselves. I’d still love to do it with them anyway because it’s just a great way to start the day, but if they could ride their bike to school every day, I think that would be the ideal.

Doug: How’s it going? What’s your name?

Luke: Luke.

Doug: And how old are you? What grade are you in?

Luke: I’m in fourth grade and I’m 10.

Doug: Awesome. Are you gonna do this next year?

Luke: Yes.

Doug: And how does it feel biking to school in the morning?

Luke: I really like it because it kind of wakes you up. You kind of get exercise before you get to go to school. You—you feel more awake. And I just really enjoy biking. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Overall, I just really like doing it and it helps the environment a lot.

Matt: My name is Matt and I’m in second grade.

Doug: So you’re about to finish, so you’re a rising third grader, I guess, as they say, right?

Matt: Yes.

Doug: And what do you like about the bike bus?

Matt: I like how it has a lot of people. And the bike bus that I go on goes to two different schools, and then it splits up. And we pick people on at the—when we are already biking, and people just don’t have to meet at the starting off point.

Doug: Right, so as you go, the group gets bigger until you drop people off.

Matt: Yes.

Doug: And what would you like to see next year for the bike bus, because school is about to end?

Matt: New people and some different routes.

Doug: Why do you want those things?

Matt: Because new people, they’re gonna be new to the bike bus and they’re gonna have a fun experience.

Sarah: Sam Balto thinks bike buses have a special power to help people see and understand how we could make our communities better for everyone through active transportation.

Sam Balto: When you look at the comments on my bike bus videos on TikTok or on Twitter, I mean people are literally there, “Why am I crying? I’m so emotional. I’m so glad I’m not the only one here crying. Okay, good. Like, why is this making me so happy?” And I think it’s the thing. We want our children to thrive. The joy of bike buses for children and for communities is universal. It crosses all boundaries, and being able to create space and claim space for children’s mobility is what this movement is all about.

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Huge thanks to all the people in Barcelona and in Montclair who brought us along for the ride. It was so much fun. Thanks so much to you for listening. And thanks to our Patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. If you want to support the war on cars, go to TheWarOnCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist today. Starting at just $3 a month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content, ad-free episodes and we’ll send you stickers.

Sarah: Special thanks to our friends at Rad Power Bikes and Cleverhood for sponsoring this episode. For 15 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store, use code FALLBACK at checkout.

Sarah: And thanks so much to our top Patreon supporters: The Parking Reform Network, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund.

Sarah: This episode was produced by me and edited by Ali Lemer. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Sarah Goodyear, and on behalf of my co-hosts, Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, this is The War on Cars.

Doug: What’s your name?

Ezekiel: Ezekiel.

Doug: Ezekiel, how old are you?

Ezekiel: Five.

Doug: And …

Ezekiel: Actually, I’m six.

Doug: You’re six? And you just finished what grade? Kindergarten, right?

Girl: He’s five.

Ezekiel: Yeah.

Doug: Do you come on the bike bus?

Ezekiel: Yes.

Girl: He’s five. He’s almost six.

Doug: He’s almost six.

Girl: He’s six in August.

Doug: What do you like about the bike bus?

Ezekiel: I get to ride on Daddy’s bike.

Doug: Oh, that’s so cool! And are your friends on the bike bus, too?

Ezekiel: Yes.

Doug: How many friends? Lots?

Ezekiel: One.

Doug: What’s your friend’s name?

Ezekiel: Leo.

Doug: Very cool. Does he ride on a parent’s bike too?

Ezekiel: No. He rides his own bike without training wheels.

Doug: Wow! That’s so cool!