The Thornton Creek Bike Train Project

Until this past year, Seattle had no bike trains. At least none that we’re aware of. Walking school buses? Yes. Group rides from the doughnut shop to school? Check. Bike rodeos? You bet.

But no bike trains — even though they are one of those very cool ideas you read about from time to time, and think, “Wow, that would be a great way to help families and kids get to school under their own power!”

Portland has been known for its bike trains, and it seemed natural that Seattle could at least give this approach a try. Until 2012 though, no one had really stepped up to see whether the model could work here.

Maya and the bike train arriving at the Thornton Creek station

Maya and the bike train arriving at the Thornton Creek station

The beginnings of a bike train

This all changed last spring, when Maya Jacobs, a senior in the Community Environment and Planning program at the UW, had the brainstorm to bring bike trains to Seattle. Inspired by a bike tour she had taken the previous summer, she decided to focus her senior capstone project on biking for transportation. She considered bike route mapping, or design of a bike lane or some other infrastructure improvement. But when she came upon the idea of bike trains, she was hooked. She saw the benefits of working with people to help them adopt new commute behaviors, rather than focusing on changes to the physical environment to make it more bike-friendly. This focus on encouragement and support is a cornerstone of many of the walk and bike to school programs at local schools.

Maya also saw the potential for helping local kids become more capable and independent. As she put it, “It’s really empowering for kids when they don’t have to rely on their parents for everything.” Promoting biking for transportation can really help to build the capacity and independence of our Seattle children.

Maya chose Thornton Creek Elementary, a school that she herself had attended, as a logical place to launch her project. Soon the Thornton Creek bike trains were born. I had a chance to ride along with the Thornton Creek Bike Trains on several occasions, and also had an opportunity to sit down with Maya to learn a little more about how the project started, how it was received, and how others might start something similar.

Some key factors and the basic approach

One thing Maya found was that recruiting a core group of dedicated parents is key. She felt the Thornton Creek school community was well-suited to trying something like this, given the alternative school’s experiential learning approach. Thornton Creek also had a well-developed network of parents and a reasonably favorable geography and road netword around the school. Working with a parent group, Maya was able to plot out two bike train routes, both of which had the advantages of being only moderately hilly (they both ran north-south) and not being cut off by an uber-arterial like Hwy. 99 or Lake City Way. The routes did both cross lower traffic arterials, but the planning group determined they would be manageable with parents riding along for support.

Thornton Creek was a good place to try this. But honestly, the characteristics of involved parents and a reasonable geography apply to many Seattle schools. In fact, many of our schools have a community of folks who might jump at the opportunity to help out with something like this and even become dedicated volunteers. Maybe they are avid bike riders themselves, or maybe they have an interest in creating a more sustainable environment. Or maybe they simply appreciate the opportunity to improve their school community through efforts like these.

Maya kicked the program into gear with an introductory meeting at a parent’s home, recruited some volunteers to help, and established a basic schedule and set of bike train rules to keep everyone safe. If you start a bike train yourself, feel free to build from Maya’s templates.

Northbound for Thornton Creek Elementary

Northbound for Thornton Creek Elementary

Rolling out of the station

The bike trains rolled into action last May, and ran every Friday that month. The ridership grew to as many as 40 kids on their bikes, and I can personally attest they were well-organized and always left the station on time. They were also incredibly fun — the kids had a blast and the parents did too!

Maya’s bike train project helped her complete her undergraduate studies and get her diploma. It also created a lasting program at Thornton Creek that has carried on as she has moved on to other adventures. Parents continued the bike trains on a weekly basis after Maya’s project wrapped up in the spring, and picked up again from the first week of school this past fall. The Thornton Creek bike train even had the honor of helping to open the 39th Ave. neighborhood greenway in October.

While Thornton Creek parents hadn’t previously thought to establish bike trains, it turned out they just needed a catalyst to help get started.

Getting more Seattle trains rolling

So in the end, what does it take to start a bike train at your school? A little bit of organizational savvy, some commitment and follow-through, and a dose of passion for kid-powered commuting! While having a student with a cool senior project to sharpen your focus might help, it certainly isn’t essential (especially now that Maya has mapped out a basic approach). Bike trains are well within the grasp of a group of motivated parents.

It’s not too early to think about a bike train program for your school this spring. It can be as frequent or infrequent as you like (once a week seems to work well). Maya put together some helpful guidelines to get you started, and the word on the street is she’s still in Seattle and might be persuaded to help another school get their kids on the road this year.

Want to dig a little deeper as you plan for bike trains at your local school? The Safe Routes to School National Partnership has put together a useful set of tips and techniques from bike train programs in other cities that is worth a look as well.

We also noticed that Cascade Bicycle Club received an SDOT mini-grant this year to help parents get bike trains started. Last we heard, they were planning some workshops for this April, and my guess is they’ll be announcing dates and details soon. Even more confirmation that the bike train movement in Seattle is growing!

All aboard!

 

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The Loyal Heights Urban Cycling Club

Loyal Heights urban bikersIf you were an elementary school student just getting comfortable on your bike and navigating your neighborhood, how cool would it be to be part of a bike club to work on skills and ride with your friends?

It’s no wonder that so many kids are on sports teams, in scouts or band, or participate in other activities. It’s super fun to get together with some other like-minded kids to build skills and learn from a coach and each other. And biking clearly has the same potential: so many adults enjoy the social aspects of cycling and belong to a club or a team or just appreciate riding with friends.

So a bike club for kids seems like a no-brainer, right? But there aren’t many at the elementary school level in Seattle. That is beginning to change, however, and one of the more interesting new initiatives in Seattle’s bike to school world is an after-school club recently founded at Loyal Heights Elementary in Ballard. We’ve touched on it before, highlighting it as one of the many promising 2013 programs receiving some support from Safe Routes to School mini-grants this year.

I’m excited to report the club has been formed and the fun has begun! From Loyal Heights parent and bike to school organizer Shannon Koller:

The Loyal Heights After-School Urban Cycling Club is off and rolling after a very successful first meeting last Friday.  Seventeen 3rd – 5th graders are participating in this new after-school club, 10 of which are girls!  After learning each others names, we started off with helmet fit, then went on to ABC quick check and how to lock up your bike.  Sensing a growing energy in the group, we got the kids on their bikes and taught them the basics of starting, stopping, standing, and shifting.

The kids really seemed to like the ability to learn something, then immediately practice it.  This week we will teach hand signals, road signs, rules of the road, then practice skills like rock dodge, scanning, quick stop, slalom and more.  Theory and application is the center of the curriculum and we will eventually be taking our lessons on to the neighborhood streets in April for organized rides to the Ballard Library, Sunset Overlook Park, and the Ballard Greenway.  Each week kids will practice riding through roundabouts, unmarked intersections, bike lanes, and other urban infrastructure that they will encounter in our neighborhood.

Demonstrating proper braking techniques

Demonstrating proper braking techniques

The cool thing about this bike club is that it’s focused on helping kids develop real-world riding skills appropriate to Seattle and specifically to the neighborhood around Loyal Heights and Ballard. This will empower these kids to become independent, competent urban cyclists!

Shannon also reports that Loyal Heights is already planning for Bike to School month, and shared some early details. They expect to hold a kickoff event on Saturday, April 27 on the school playground with a bike skills workshop, bike adjustment station, helmet sale, and more.  Kickoff events are a great way to start bike to school months or springtime biking in general, by giving families some initial support and encouragement, and simply providing a specific time to get the community focused on the potential for kids getting to school under their own power. Loyal Heights also plans to hold organized neighborhood rides to take place right after the event.

Loyal Heights is also considering organizing some bike trains too, possibly on Bike to School Day. We’ll be posting a little more info on bike trains in the near future.

It’s awesome to hear that schools are already launching springtime bike to school programs!

Making signs for an urban biking course

Making signs for an urban biking course