PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A Portland elementary school teacher is asking people to reimagine what a school bus looks like.
Instead of loading children into a large, yellow vehicle every day where they sit through each stop before arriving at their destination, he’s inspiring kids to participate in a school “bike bus.”
The kids gather at two locations, one about 1.5 miles from school and the other about 1.25 miles. The two groups meet up and together the swarm of children pedals to Alameda Elementary School.
“The kids are really good at navigating the streets and they want to go to school. They want to be with their friends and they know how special this is,” said Sam Balto, the physical education teacher who organizes the once-weekly ride.
Balto has been an educator for more than 10 years and in that time, he’s developed a passion for active transportation. When he worked in Boston, he started walking school buses – which are similar to bike buses, but kids walk to school together.
He brought this idea to Portland when he worked at Cesar Chavez Elementary School and in 2021, after he started at Alameda Elementary School, he began the bike bus on Earth Day.
“One thing that I get great joy out of is just being able to see how excited the kids are to ride to school with their friends,” Balto said. “All I do is sort of set the route and play music.”
The bike bus rolls out every Wednesday morning, rain or shine, and it usually has between 130 and 170 kids riding along. Balto recently celebrated having 30% of the elementary school students participating in the ride.
Every bike bus is supervised by Balto and two other adults, but he feels it’s a great way for kids to gain autonomy and independence and to feel confident navigating Portland’s streets.
With the city of Portland trying to lower emissions and reduce vehicle traffic, Balto sees this as a way for kids to develop biking habits at an early age and learn about the environmental benefits.
Many kids at Alameda Elementary School already own bicycles, but for those who don’t and who want to participate in the bike bus, Balto said there’s assistance available. He said the school was selected to receive a Safe Routes to School grant from Metro and the money can be used to help purchase bicycles for children at the school.
Anyone interested should reach out to the Portland Bureau of Transportation's Safe Routes to School.
Balto and other parent volunteers are also planning ahead for the rainy season. They’re working on plans to help families acquire rain gear, rain pants and fenders for bikes.
“There’s no bad weather. There’s just bad clothing,” Balto said.
He expects participation might decline through the winter, but plans to keep the weekly bike bus going through the year.
Balto has been posting videos about his bike bus on social media. One recent video he posted to Tiktok has been viewed more than 500,000 times and has more than 2,000 comments. They’ve been overwhelmingly supportive and Balto said he receives messages daily from people saying he’s inspired them to start their own walk or bike buses.
“There’s this narrative that things are so terrible and things are so bad and our children have been just in the dumps. And they see the joy, the natural, beautiful joy of children laughing and smiling and racing each other going to school, and it touches something inside of us,” Balto said.
After children were separated from their classmates for so long during the pandemic, this has been a way to help them reconnect.
In his ideal world, Balto would love to see every urban school offering bike or walk buses – and he’d really like to see city officials invest in them.
Right now, he feels limited to only offering the bike bus once a week because he’s relying on adult volunteers. If cities or schools could pay parents or teachers to lead bike buses, just like they pay bus drivers, he feels it could become a way to transport kids to and from school every day.
“Student transportation has never been something that we’ve really valued,” Balto said. "It’s been very individualistic. You either get a bus or you’re stuck figuring it out. And there’s a better way to do this… It’s time for a change.”
If they have the volunteers, Balto encourages other Portland schools to start their own walk or bike buses. It’s a way to build community, strengthen kids’ relationships, and improve their health.