Sam Balto on how to start a bike bus of your own

Sam Balto in the front of the bus on September 21, 2022. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Sam Balto is a serial entrepreneur for safe roads. His first claim to fame was using cardboard cutouts of soccer star Tom Brady to slow traffic in front of a school where he taught in Boston, Massachusetts. After moving to Portland in 2018, Sam’s tactical urbanism took it to the next level with the Red Cup Challenge. These two DIY traffic taming tactics caught national media attention.

But nothing Sam has ever done has evolved quite like the bike bus. What started out by getting kids (he’s a gym teacher) active before school on Earth Day in April has gone viral. A TikTok video he posted this week has over 1.5 million views.

Sam wants more people to get on the bus. So before he stops taking my calls, I asked him to uncover all his secrets.

Take it away Sam…

Find your why

The question you need to ask yourself is why would you want to start one? There are two reasons you ask this question: First, it helps you focus on the problem you are trying to solve. Plus, it helps to remember why you started in the first place when things might be frustrating or it’s the middle of winter and the weather isn’t so pleasant.

My “why” changes depending on the school I’ve worked at. At Cesar Chavez Elementary School in north Portland, my “why” was to build a strong community and revitalize a past-existing pedestrian school bus program. I wanted to give children more opportunities for physical activity and support students who didn’t qualify for the bus and had no one to take them to school. At Alameda, my “why” was to start the bike bus to reduce car trips at the drop-off, which had spiked mid-trip due to canceled bus routes.

Build your team

My friend Paul (yellow arrow) is helping me lock down the crowd. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Once you know your “why,” you can start making allies. This work shouldn’t be done alone, so find someone who shares your interest in starting a bike bus. I found other champions by hanging out at the bike racks before and after school and talking to parents who were riding bikes with their kids. I shared the idea of ​​a bike bus and asked if they wanted to help.

Once you have your team, it’s time to plan the route.

Set up the route

First determine the catchment area of ​​your school. Then you will find the official bus route information. Some school districts have bus routes on the school transportation website and they are usually easy to find. I take this information and put the bus stops in Google Maps layers. This gives me an idea of ​​where the students live and where the students catch the bus.

I then mark which bus stops are between 1 and 2 km from the school. These bus stops are accessible by bike and can be reached on foot. If you are a school administrator or staff member, some school districts have lists of which students should board at each stop. This list gives you great information for families to reach out to and invite to your bike bus or school bus.

In Portland we have greenways in the neighborhood which are the preferred routes for biking and walking. They have speed bumps, lower speed limits (20 mph citywide), signage and often traffic diversions to reduce the number of cars on the road. For our school, we have the NE Klickitat Greenway, which runs east-west, and the NE 37th/Alameda Greenway, which runs north-south.

In one of the maps above you can see how student addresses match our route. Notice how many families live just a few blocks from the bike bus. Families who live four blocks or more from the two main meeting points have set up micro bike buses and cycle together to the main route. Lots of other families know the route and just wait at the next corner and join us as we roll by.

Our first bike bus ride had an easy route using only one road (NE click quote). That helped with set up, but when we decided to continue the bike bus every week for the rest of the school year, we added another meeting place to include families living north of NE Fremont, a major artery.

Spread the word

Sample flyer by Sam Balto

Once you have an itinerary and meeting times, create a flyer and share it with everyone. In 2008 I was working for the Obama campaign in northeastern Pennsylvania. I’ve enrolled over 2,000 college students and I have the same attitude when talking to people about the bike bus. I will talk to everyone and everyone about the bike bus! Even if they drive every day, I still invite them and make sure that they feel welcome with us.

I hope this is helpful. Here are the four most important things to remember:

  • Find another family to do it with.
  • Create a meeting time card and share it with everyone. Be inclusive and welcoming.
  • Be consistent. Our bicycle bus has grown steadily because we are consistent and can use it to plan students/families.
  • Just do it. Even if it’s a three-block drive, that’s amazing. You have to start somewhere and build support.

Much luck!

For more information, see these helpful resources:

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