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
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
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!