Cycling In Packs Boost Riders’ Health and Reduces Vehicle Carbon Emissions
Going to school in Scotland may have never been so exciting.
During any school morning rush hour, one can hear children laughing, bells ringing, and music booming from a speaker while a vibrantly colored procession of bikes rolls through the main traffic junction in Shawlands in Glasgow.
But this isn’t some crack of dawn carnival. It’s simply a group of parents taking their children to school on a “bike bus.”
The loud music and bright orange and yellow clothing keep everyone in this moving pack of bicyclists safe on the roads. Parents and other riders revel in the biking experience with their children—and demonstrating how city cycling is a practical, low-carbon way of getting kids to school.
Bike buses have come a long way since a group of parents got together to bike with their kids to school in Fietspoolen, Veilig, Belgium, in 1998. Today, the Scottish Shawlands version is just one of at least 453 routes taking thousands of children to school in thirteen countries across the world on at least one morning a week.
These numbers have grown exponentially, inspired initially by word of mouth, then more recently through social media clips showing parents leaving their cars at home and taking out their bikes. In Barcelona, Spain, every week a swarm of school children form a bike peloton the width of the city’s broad avenues, with groups peeling off at different junctions to go to their own school. Most bike bus routes are between 1.7 to 3.5km (about 1 to 2.1 miles) in distance with the children typically cycling fifteen to twenty-five minutes to get to their lessons.
The environmental benefits of a bike bus come from obvious reductions in CO2 emissions. If only one parent switched from driving a combustion-engine vehicle to cycling four miles to school (roundtrip) twice a week (average passenger vehicle emits about 400 grams of CO2 per mile), the annual CO2 emissions would be reduced by an estimated 115.2 kg (253.9 lb) annually (counting 36 weeks of school). Multiplying that figure by thirty, the average number of bicyclers on a bike bus, illustrates how much one bike bus can clean up city air—or a total reduction of 3,456 kg (7,619.1 lb) of CO2.
For Barcelona bicibús (Spanish for “bike bus”) volunteer and data collector Jordi Honey-Rosés, the benefits also extend to a social level. When he first witnessed the bike bus in action, he could see the long-term effects it would have in the lives of children and on urban landscapes: “It was simultaneously a practical way to travel to school; it was social, it was fun, and it also made a strong statement about what our city should look like,” said Honey-Rosés, a research professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
“Kids going to school are performing an essential basic function of their day-to-day lives, but our cities haven’t made it easy for them to ride a bike to school.”
In a Zoom conversation, Honey-Rosés explains that modern cities simply haven’t been designed with children in mind: “Kids going to school are performing an essential basic function of their day-to-day lives, but our cities haven’t made it easy for them to ride a bike to school.”
Incredibly, the large numbers of children biking to school through the bustling Catalan capital force the bicibús organizers to register their ride as a demonstration to have the protection of a local police escort—their blue lights flashing—to keep the children safe. Honey-Rosés thinks it shouldn’t be this way—and bike buses can become the driver of change. “If we are able to build cities that can accommodate children safely, then we will be building better cities for everyone.”
“[Bike buses] brought together so many different things we are interested in—mobility, transforming our city, reclaiming our streets.”
“When you see children riding down the center of the street, they’re out of scale; they somehow don’t belong and yet they do belong,” he says. “[Bike buses] brought together so many different things we are interested in—mobility, transforming our city, reclaiming our streets.”
School Bike Bus in Scotland
In Shawlands, Scotland, five families were inspired by the Barcelona bicibús to create their own version two years ago, in 2021, when the COP26 climate change conference took place in the city. In an interview over coffee, one of the founders, Katherine Cory, said she has seen many benefits. “Forty percent of the kids at the school are on the bike bus; that’s a huge number not coming by car. There is also a ripple effect as a lot of parents, like me, who hadn’t been on a bike for years, are now commuting to work on bike bus days and even non-bike bus days,” Cory said before cycling off to pick up her seven-year-old daughter Martha from school.
To help make their journey across a busy junction easier, the leader of the Shawlands bike bus has strapped the Ultra-Smart Cycle System onto his bike’s handlebars. This blue gadget was developed by Sm@rt Technology for the Glasgow City Council. It has three buttons that control different sets of traffic lights along a route, holding them at green for forty-five seconds—four times longer than normal—to allow the seventy to eighty bike bus riders to pass through together. Although specifically created for the Shawlands bike bus, this kit could be used by groups across the world.
But even with the aid of smart technology, running a bike bus requires a lot of commitment and hard work from parents to make it a success.
But even with the aid of such smart technology, running a bike bus requires a lot of commitment and hard work from parents to make it a success. Besides the lead cyclist, there is a sweeper on a cargo bike at the end, ensuring no children are left behind, and a line of adults cycling on the roadside of the bike train, keeping the well-drilled children safe. While Cory loves the energy, connectedness, and sheer joy of the bike bus, she feels an underlying sense of frustration that there is no bike lane in place to protect the riders.
“The adults are essentially a human bike lane. We are acting as human infrastructure until we can get an actual infrastructure,” she says.
She adds: “We love the community that we have built on a bike bus, but we should not have to be doing this. It is a form of protest. We are plugging away every week showing these families and children want to cycle to school, but it is not safe.”
School Bike Bus(es) in the USA
Like Cory in Scotland, physical education teacher Sam Balto in Portland, Oregon, happened to see the Barcelona bicibús clip online and created his own bike bus to take students to Alameda Elementary School more than a year ago. Now, on any given school day, there are between 70 to 150 students taking their bikes to school. They start in two cohorts, each 1.5 miles away from the school, that converge to ride the last mile together.
Balto shares Cory’s desire for structural change. “Bike buses are a call to action to our city leaders to prioritize our children’s mobility and to improve infrastructure to allow kids and their families to ride bikes to school, to their friends’ houses, to the library, and to businesses all around the city to increase opportunities for their independence,” he says.
For instance, “we would love more dedicated bike lanes; diverters on neighborhood greenways, school streets; red light cameras—all sorts of infrastructure improvements, not just for cyclists but for pedestrians as well,” Balto says.
Balto’s wish list is not an impossible goal. The cycling utopia of safe streets already exists in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where bikes are central to city planning. In the Danish capital, almost half of the journeys taken to school or work today are by bike, while the Dutch capital shows the power of parents who campaigned to force the city leaders to make the city safe for children to bike.
In ten years' time, who knows how far bike buses will go in Barcelona, Shawlands, and Portland?
*Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.