Every Wednesday morning, people in Portland, Ore., go to their windows and stand on their stoops to watch a group of about 170 children roll by on their bikes, music trailing behind them, sometimes drowned out by the kids’ excited chatter. The onlookers cheer and take photos.
Physical education teacher Sam Balto leads the caravan of kids on their collective commute to school starting about 8:10 a.m. He wears a neon yellow safety vest and blasts music on a portable speaker.
Warlitner’s two children, ages 6 and 7, spring out of bed Wednesday mornings, she said, to join the bike caravan to school. Warlitner shared a video of the “bike bus” on TikTok last week, and it has been viewed more than 7 million times. She said she thinks it hit a nerve because of the sheer joy it spreads.
“They just get to school happy,” she said.
The bike bus has become the students’ favorite way to get to school. The community likes it because it reduces congestion and pollution caused by buses and cars — while also promoting physical activity and fostering community.
Balto — who is from Chevy Chase, Md., and has been a teacher for 10 years at schools in D.C., Boston and now Portland — has long been interested in the idea of active transportation.
While teaching in Boston, Balto started a “walking school bus” in 2016. He plotted out a safe route and encouraged students, parents, teachers and community members to join a group stroll to school.
“I saw great success with that,” said Balto, 37. “Children really love a chance to be out walking with their friends, and it was a great way to support students who did not have a parent who could walk with them or drive them to school.”
Balto said walking as a group addressed several problems, including childhood inactivity, bus driver shortages, morning drop-off congestion, pollution and safety concerns — since some parents and students aren’t comfortable with solo walks to school.
“There is tons of research about the importance of physical activity before school,” Balto said, adding that he noticed morning exercise improved students’ ability to focus in class.
What struck him most about the walking school bus, though, was how it strengthened the sense of community at the school.
“When we can provide more opportunities for children to connect with their peers, they absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s how we build stronger, more connected, safer school communities.”
When Balto moved to Portland in 2018, he brought the walking project to his new school. Then the pandemic hit, and he began working at Alameda Elementary in the fall of 2021.
In April, to mark Earth Day, he proposed trying out a bike bus, which he saw was gaining popularity in Barcelona. Administrators were enthusiastically on board.
He had also participated in National Bike to School Day. This is that idea writ large.
“That first run of it on Earth Day was a super-successful event,” said Matt Goldstein, the principal of Alameda.
The bike bus was also an opportunity for students to learn about climate change and how they can help. “This has proven to be a really cool, actionable item for kids and adults,” he said.
The whole school was invited to join the ride, and about 75 students showed up, many bringing their parents along to help chaperone.
Having led several walking school buses in the past, Balto was surprised that the bike bus had an even more powerful effect.
“Bikes provide a sense of freedom and joy that I was not expecting,” he said.
Given its success, they decided to do it again — and again and again. It quickly became a weekly Wednesday ritual at the school, and by the end of the school year roughly 120 students were taking part each time. Now, more than 170 kids — nearly 30 percent of the student body — meet every Wednesday morning, ready to ride. Goldstein also participates.
“The energy and the sense of community and the smiles, the day feels a little bit different than other days,” Goldstein said.
Every Wednesday around 8 a.m., the kids and parent volunteers congregate at two meeting spots, depending where they live. Balto has mapped out two routes — each about 1.5 miles long — and the groups meet in the middle. Both rides are entirely on a neighborhood greenway, which is a road intended for walking and biking. Parents wait at major crossings to stop the bike bus until there’s a break in car traffic.
There is always “a good ratio of adults to kids,” Balto said, adding that although they stay on a designated bike route, “there’s safety in numbers.”
The school community provides bikes to any student who doesn’t have access to one, Balto said. He has also contacted to local cycling organizations, with the aim of offering bikes to students in need at other schools in the city.
“At other schools, there’s a higher need for support,” said Balto, who shares videos of the bike bus on social media, hoping it will inspire other schools. “These videos are really touching something in people. There’s a sense of joy and freedom that they see with the children biking, but it also gets them to stop and reflect on how we can do student transportation differently.”
“My goal is to bring more awareness about active transportation and also to change how we fund student transportation,” Balto continued, adding that relying on parent volunteers to facilitate bike buses is inequitable and unsustainable. “Just as we have infrastructure for buses, we need to create an infrastructure around active transportation.”
Ian Downard, who has two children — ages 8 and 10 — at the school, helps lead the group every Wednesday.
The concept “touched me deeply,” he said. When the project started in the spring, “people were just so starved for community.”
“When we do bike bus, people come out of their homes and watch us. It’s kind of like a parade,” Downard said. “It’s palpable, the excitement in the neighborhood and community, and how much joy everyone gets just by seeing kids going to school and being happy and exercising.”
Downard brings his 65-pound goldendoodle, Phoebe, along for the ride. He straps her into a basket on the back of his bike.
“The dog is definitely a mascot for the bike bus,” he said.
As a parent, he has taken note of the benefits the bike bus, particularly for children.
“They not only enjoy biking, but it gets them in a great frame of mind for learning,” Downard said. “The whole thing is just such a delight. It’s nothing but goodness.”
Since starting the bike bus, Balto has noticed groups of students riding to school together on non-bike-bus days, which “has been truly amazing to see,” he said.
“When you get students and parents out of their cars and out in the community,” Balto said, “that is where the magic happens.”