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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A Banner Year for SDOT Mini-grants

Happy New Year everyone!It is a great time of year for planning ahead to potential events and programs for the spring and fall, and for many schools access to grant funding can play an important role, along with support from school administrations, PTSAs, and parents and staff.

This upcoming year promises to be a huge one for walk and bike to school programs here in Seattle. There was so much energy and growth in Seattle’s walk and bike to school programs in 2012, and if SDOT’s grant program is any indication, we’re just getting started and 2013 will be even bigger.

The Seattle Department of Transportation received a record 30 applications for funding support through their mini-grant program for 2013, and were able to fund nearly all of them. (A couple of grant applications were out of scope due to being too large, or for projects that didn’t fit the grant guidelines established for the call for applications). SDOT has been running this grant program since the 2007 Bridging the Gap levy created this funding source, and this is by far the  biggest year ever in terms of the number of schools participating and the amount of funding dispersed.

$27,700 will support a lot of bike and walk to school events!

$27,700 will support a lot of bike and walk to school events!

All total, SDOT is funding 28 applications totaling $27,700. Most are from individual schools, though Cascade Bicycle Club sought and received a grant for a multi-school programs it is planning to initiate. There is a good geographic diversity to the applications too, with participating schools split pretty evenly around the city.

Most of the schools are Seattle Public Schools, with only two private schools receiving funding. And, notably, most are elementary level or K-8 schools. Only five middle schools are receiving funding, and no high schools this year. While a record 27 schools with grant-funded programs for the coming year is fantastic, we hope that in future years we can see more involvement from private schools and from middle and high schools. Let’s get high school students to sponsor their own programs!

Overall, the breadth of the grant program for 2013 looks really promising, with a range of programs and events to get kids walking and biking. This includes many encouragement programs along with some smaller infrastructure improvements. Some proposed infrastructure improvements such as bike racks didn’t receive grant funding as SDOT believes they can meet the need through other funds.

A couple of highlights and examples:

Loyal Heights Elementary in Ballard is looking to establish an after-school urban cycling club for 4th and 5th graders.  The goal is to provide kids with a strong foundation of bike safety education combined with application of the skills they learn. The program is still under development, and grant funding will be helpful to pay for professional instruction by Cascade Bicycle Club instructors as well as to purchase supplies. Parent volunteers will also be involved, learning about the content and delivery of the curriculum to ensure program continuity into future seasons.  The intent is to create a 4 to 1 ratio of kids to adults, so that students get very personalized instruction, and to include learning and practice initially on school grounds, then ultimately through short, organized rides around the neighborhood. This model is an interesting one; we hope to track the progress and report back as the program is launched and implemented. Perhaps it will create a model for other schools to consider.

Denny International Middle School in West Seattle is establishing a new program this year, and is planning on using the funds on creative incentives to support and encourage more Denny students to choose alternative ways to school, as well as on some dedicated routes to access the school. They are planning on focusing on both student and teacher involvement and will use the funds for signage around the school grounds to make a designated route, along with promotional materials including prizes to reward regular ridership.  Denny also has an opportunity to collaborate with the co-located Chief Sealth International High School and its Major Taylor program. Denny is also beginning to looking at add opportunities for creating covered bike parking using  existing bike racks so weather is not an issue when locking up bikes, though this will likely require additional funding. (Many schools are interested in exploring better bike parking options including covered parking; we’ll explore this in a future post.)

Cascade’s grant proposal is to hold two workshops entitled “Bike Training – How to Run and Ride Your Bike Train,” one in the north end of Seattle and one in the south end. These workshops will be held at community centers and will be open to the public; parents and children will learn how to ride in a bike train on the road. Each workshop will include a short lecture for parents in bike train organization and safe route choices as well as a supervised bike rodeo for children, a skill-building course for parents and a short ride on neighborhood streets. After seeing first-hand the success of the Thornton Creek bike trains this past year, it will be interesting to see whether this program can help launch bike trains at more schools.

SDOT staff also reported a lot of interest in Undriving events this year, with several schools using grant funding to host these to encourage their students to become “Undrivers.”

There are a number of other really cool projects and ideas on tap for 2013. We’ll pass along some more highlights later. For now, this post is sort of the wide-angle view with just a few details. If you want to dive in deeper, check out the full list here. Maybe one of these projects will spark some ideas for your school.

We’re looking forward to an awesome 2013, and can’t wait to hear how all of these new walk and bike initiatives turn out!

Biking to Bryant

Celebrate a New Greenway: Join the Bike Train!

Seattle’s second neighborhood greenway is scheduled for completion, and it happens to coincide with one of our favorite walk and bike to school projects, the Thornton Creek bike trains!

The new greenway runs along 39th Ave. NE, which happens to be the southern bike train route to Thornton Creek.

Childrens Hospital is the sponsor of this new greenway through their Livable Streets Initiative. Seattle Neighborhood Greenways has also been doing a great job of working with the city and with neighbors to help get greenways like this one implemented throughout Seattle. While this is only the second one constructed to date, more are planned in the coming years.

Many readers will be familiar with them, but for those who may not be, a neighborhood greenway is a local street with features that create a safer environment for walking and biking to local parks, schools, and other neighborhood destinations. Some of the best greenways will help kids and families get to school more safely.

39th Ave. NE under construction.
This connection to the BG is complete now!

Childrens recognizes that kids and families will be a primary user group of the new 39th Ave. NE project. The greenway should help Thornton Creek students — and some from Bryant and Eckstein as well — navigate their way across arterial streets and get to school a little more easily and safely. With the greenway nearing completion, Childrens has scheduled a ribbon cutting ceremony to coincide with the October 26 running of the Thornton Creek bike train!

What could be cooler than a bike train on a greenway? Greenways and bike trains are two new cutting edge walk and bike initiatives here in Seattle, and it’s really fun to see them connected in this way. Hopefully this event will help demonstrate to the community the value and fun of both neighborhood greenways and of kids walking and biking to school.

Here are the details for next Friday’s event. While it’s timed for the departure of the bike train, neighbors and other community members are welcome to join too.

Riding with the Thornton Creek bike train is really fun and inspiring. If you have a chance, swing by the southern station next Friday morning and hop on board!

The Thornton Creek bike train rolling along last spring.
The greenway project has improved these arterial crossings.

Build Your Own Bike Train

It has been nearly a month since the last NE Seattle Bike Train, and I have yet to post any sort of conclusion to this project. Sorry! Well, here it is…albeit a bit late.

The Thornton Creek Bike Train and Wedgwood group rides were more successful than I could have hoped for. While at Wedgwood we often had a relatively small turnout, we saw a three fold increase in ridership from the first week to the second, and the smiling faces were enough to call this project a success. At Thornton Creek we had a steady rate of about 30 kids riding in each Bike Train, with 40 kids on Bike to School Day. Each train saw new faces, from back-pedal break kindergarteners to 5th graders with their multi-speed shiny little racing bikes. These trains were indescribably rewarding. Each train that I lead brought a smile to my face that was impossible to suppress throughout the entire 1.5 mile ride.

The Thornton Creek Bike Trains have become a popular topic of conversation among the Seattle bike-to-school folks, so I thought it may be beneficial to post something of a DIY Bike Trains recipe. I will include a basic step-by-step process, however if you have further questions feel free to contact me!

  1. Create your community.
    1. Post an announcement about your project in the newsletter, email your class parents, talk to your kids. Request that anyone interested in partaking email you.
    2. Compile an email list and maintain contact with those who are interested.
  2. Examine a directory, or general student whereabouts.
    1. Where are kids concentrated?
    2. How can you create direct but useful routes?
  3. Check out a map:
    1. Where are the arterials? Residential streets?
  4. Hop on your bike:
    1. Where are the hills? Flat roads? What feels safest? Least safe?
  5. Compile this information.
    1. Create a few simple, preliminary routes that account for location of kids, topography, and traffic.
  6. Engage your community!
    1. Organize a meeting with other interested parents and staff. Finesse your routes, discuss other concerns.
    2. Determine bike train dates.
  7. Time your routes.
    1. Bike each route at least twice, stopping every 5-10 blocks in the same locations to check the time. (Hint: bike very slowly—imagine you are riding a tiny, single-speed, kid’s bike).
  8. Publish your routes and dates
    1. Create a blog, email template or poster (or all three). Get the word out, include links and dates in the newsletter.
  9. Find your leaders, arrive early, and bike the routes!

Wedgwood Group Ride Update

Two Wedgwood group rides have occurred so far, and the trend is really inspiring! We had four children on our first ride (which, while a small turnout, is still terrific!), however we more than tripled our numbers during our second ride: 13 kids showed up with their families. Wow!

This Friday is Bike to School Day, and I can’t wait to see our numbers triple again! We will be meeting at Top Pot doughnuts at 8:00am, and leaving at 8:30 for school. We will also be joined by the Bryant Elementary bike to school crowd, and while I wouldn’t be surprised to see half of Bryant at Top Pot, I think Wedgwood may just surprise us all with the turnout!

If you are a Wedgwood parent or student, track your trips this month to be eligible for prizes and to challenge yourself to get on that bike everyday!

Thornton Creek Bike Train Update

The Thornton Creek bike trains continue to amaze me. While our numbers hover around 30 kids (which is amazing!) we continually see new faces and more kids expressing interest. We are eager to grow this program–I am secretly hoping to have a huge turnout this Friday, which is Bike to School Day!

For those of you who have been riding to school, whether in bike trains or not, you can track your trips throughout bike to school month to challenge yourself and win prizes! Track your trips, ride in bike trains, and enjoy this incredibly beautiful city in the spring!

Thornton Creek Bike Trains Take Off!

Wow! Today was incredible. I was shocked and amazed by how many people we had out on our first day of Thornton Creek Bike Trains! We counted 35 kid’s bikes at the school, and a few others came in on xtracycles and tandems. Holy cow! I was expecting about 8 people, and hoping for 10, this number really blows me away. Even the Bryant folks who came (thank you so much for your support, Bryant parents) were impressed by Thornton Creek’s numbers! Hopefully we will pick up even more steam and see more and more children riding! Thank you all SO much for riding and supporting this project–it is so great to see a line of kids riding to school!

Today was meant as a sort of test-ride, to iron out the details, and I am indeed seeing some places for improvement. Stay tuned for an organizational google doc that will allow parents to collaborate as chaperons, as well as for some updated suggestions about bike train safety.

Photos to come!