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How to Build a Bike Train

Forty years ago, almost half of American kids biked to school. A smart idea for getting kids pedaling again.

Bike Train by Maya Jacobs

Photo by Maya Jacobs

It’s hard to describe how endearing it is to look over my shoulder and see a line of cycling children stretching a block behind me. I feel like a mama duck, leading a line of two-wheeled ducklings.

It’s the inaugural ride of the Thornton Creek Elementary School Bike Train, the first bike train in all of Seattle.

In 1969, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, 48 percent of kids aged 5 to 14 regularly walked or biked to school. In 2009, it was just 13 percent. A major reason for the change is that parents don’t feel safe letting their kids bike on their own. Bike trains—in which an adult chaperone rides a predetermined route, picking up children along the way—are a way to make it easier, and safer, for kids to bike to school.

We round the corner to collect two more kids waiting patiently with their bikes at the ready. The train slows enough for the kids to hop on board, and then picks up speed again. By the time we reach school, our train is comprised of 13 laughing children, all proud to have made their morning commute on their own. With high fives and whoops, we are greeted by the 20 riders who took the north-bound route. The school’s three bike racks are already overflowing, and the nearby posts are quickly filling up with bikes.

The Thornton Creek trains are just a small piece of the burgeoning Seattle bike-to-school network. Bike trains, which were part of my senior capstone project at the University of Washington, introduced me to some of the most inspiring people I know: families who have never owned a car, ten-year-olds who have cycled from Seattle to Portland, students who ride to school daily, rain or shine.

Bike Train Group Maya jacobs

Photo by Maya Jacobs

Bike-to-school programs are taking off all over the city. On Bike-to-School Day, for instance, 120 people participated in Bryant Elementary’s group ride. Biking to school may be simple, but its positive impact is enormous. Bike-to-school programs address large global issues from climate change to childhood obesity. With each group ride, children are empowered to take charge of their own transportation—they learn to be more confident cyclists, and that they don’t have to depend on cars to get around. They (and their parents) learn which of their classmates live nearby, making it easier to build networks for friendship and support.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspects of these programs are the communities they form, the confidence they instill in our youth, and the promise of a healthy, playful, and environmentally conscious generation.

Some DIY tips for starting a bike train:

  1. Involve your community: Find a group of interested parents through school and neighborhood message boards, listservs, or newsletters.
  2. Assess your location: Is it hilly? Flat? Busy? Residential? Map safe and dangerous streets, as well as general topography.
  3. Create routes: Using your school directory and your knowledge of the area, design safe, accessible routes that allow as many students as possible to join in. Routes two miles or less are most accessible for young children.
  4. Get feedback: Display preliminary routes for other parents, finesse routes for safety, accessibility, and efficiency. Do a trial ride.
  5. Determine bike train dates: Chose one or more days a week for the bike trains to run. Implementing these trains during more pleasant weather is a good way to ensure ridership!
  6. Get the word out: Host a meeting, post your routes online, flier your school and neighborhood.

Maya Jacobs wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

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