At North Portland's Beach School, the Bike Train connects commuting with community
Published: Friday, June 03, 2011, 7:57 PM Updated: Saturday, June 04, 2011, 9:57 AM
After pedaling with 60 Beach K-8 students to school on a recent Monday, I'm feeling a little – I don't know – sappy.
It was an imperfect but joyous line of candy-colored helmets and pumping legs, rolling through North Portland, growing in size every few blocks.
Kids at Beach School call it "the bike train," arriving every Monday. Parents and teachers say it's the perfect lesson in how commuting and community share the road.
"It hurts my legs," said 6-year-old Graisen Russell, his little hands firmly grasping handlebars, "but it's one of my favorite things. I'm glad we get to do it."
A few years ago, safety concerns prompted Beach to ban kids from biking to school.
Did I just write that in Portland, Oregon? Yep. A school in Bike Heaven where biking was once forbidden.
Beach is boxed in by Interstate 5 and buzzing arterials such as Interstate Avenue . So, the fears about children getting hit in traffic were valid. But it became part of a troubling national trend.
In 1969, about half of America's elementary and middle school students walked or biked to school, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Today, its just 15 percent. More than 50 percent get there in cars. Meanwhile, childhood obesity has escalated.
At Beach, Kiel Johnson swooped in like a chain-cranking Superman.
In 2009, Johnson read about a parent who became frustrated by the slow-moving line of cars dropping off Beach students outside the school. The driver sped out of the line and hit two children using the crosswalk.
Johnson, who had just graduated from Lewis & Clark College, was 22 and unemployed. "I figured I could sit around checking Facebook all day," he said, "or go out and do something."
He approached Beach with a safety-in-numbers concept. He drew maps of safe routes and meet-up locations. "The first bike train," Johnson said, "was me and one family."
Contrast that to last week, when a record 150 people pedaled in the train.
There are people who waste energy keeping the tired cars-vs.-bikes debate alive in online forums, where cyclists mock motorists for being "cagers" and drivers call bike riders "spokers."
Then there are those who show the next generation that they're blessed to live in a city where there are many ways to commute.
Parents at Beach started lining up to help organize and chaperone bike trains. After just a couple months, they took over.
The city helped by re-configuring some streets as part of the North Concord Avenue bike boulevard. It also allowed a section of North Concord in front of the school to be blocked off to traffic before the first bell. With help from the city's Safe Routes to School program, the number of Beach bike racks has grown from three to 25. The PTA now fixes up donated bikes and sells them for $15 to low-income students.
This isn't Critical Mass Jr. Safety rides at the head of the pack. Bike train riders learn and obey traffic laws.
Tuesday through Friday, there are unofficial bikepools led by alternating Beach parents. "I've heard teachers say students who bike to school arrive more alert," said parent and regular "train leader" Laurie Paulsen. "I believe it."