This week I had another chance to contribute once more to one of my favorite newsletters, Why is this Interesting? on one of my favorite topics: Riding bikes.
Give WITI a look, it’s a great daily perspective-shifter for me.
Nick Parish (NP) has been a long-standing friend of WITI since his days as a junior reporter on the New York Post’s sports desk. He’s since worked in editorial, strategy, product design and currently lives in Portland. He’s a fly fishing mentor to Noah and has previously written about fermentation, dams, and media sharing in Cuba for WITI.
Nick here. Most weekday mornings, it’s a challenge to get my kindergartner motivated. Except on Wednesdays. Because on Wednesdays, we ride the bike bus.
Imagine a massive pack of schoolchildren filling the street, all dinging bells and whirring chains and clicking gears, a zooming swarm of fairy wings and handlebar streamers and dinosaur helmets, a giant rumbling snowball of youthful energy gathering force, plunging toward school, plunging toward their futures.
That’s the bike bus, led by Alameda Elementary’s phys-ed teacher Coach Balto, coming to a school commute near you.
We join the bus a few blocks from home. Two dozen other kids and a couple of adults helping lead the way are usually waiting at our stop.
At 8:15 on the dot, it’s time to roll. Coach Balto shares the safety rules and cues a banger on his boombox (Katy Perry’s ’Roar”, or the Stranger Things theme), and off we go.
We cross a busy street, with adults corking traffic to let the bus pass, and join another group, another stop on the bus. A third group joins us a few minutes later, and Balto initiates the final move to school.
By now we’re probably numbering over a hundred. Neighbors wave and cheer from their stoops, morning coffees in hand, enjoying the show. My daughter usually finds her teacher, also riding. She offers encouragement as we all descend the steepest hill, hard on the brakes, like many squeaky little mice scurrying forward.
Then, we’ve arrived. Coach Balto gives out high-fives as we turn the corner to the schoolyard, starting the day with a smile.
Why is this interesting?
There’s a feeling to the bike bus that’s stronger than a normal group ride. Watch videos and you can see it on everyone’s faces. (Yes, even the parents. It’s right behind the look of concern.) Everything clicks.
I saw it when my daughter was first learning to ride at our local pump track. After a few unbroken laps, she stopped and said, “Daddy, when I’m out there, it feels like I’m in a dream.” That’s the stuff.
I don’t really care too much for the gear, or the competition, or the quantification that seems to mark cyclists. I just like to ride bikes. They bring freedom and possibility. To go places only my bike can take me. To pay attention to and care for my bike and my friends’ bikes. To make sure they run well by following simple mechanical-maintenance values.
I’m optimistic kids on the bike bus will bend toward this source of light as they grow. And as we build cities that are better geared to two wheels than four, they will take the exploration and responsibility of riding bikes with them for the rest of their lives.
Why is this really interesting?
Because a lot of decentralized efforts by interested folks are starting to spread as fast as people can watch videos like this, feel the joy, and start organizing.
In fall of last year, Barcelona’s bike bus, the bicibús, started gaining traction globally. “What a great idea,” I thought, and filed it away in my “Great Ideas” folder. (Actually, in a DEVONthink database.)
Then, last Earth Day, Coach Balto’s initial efforts surfaced. This cool thing that started all the way across the world was coming to a school near us. Our school! My Great Ideas folder vibrated.
It felt like figuring out that with a few copies of Maximum Rocknroll and some phone numbers, your band could go on tour. Track down a generator, a friend who works at Kinko’s who’s willing to look the other way for an hour, a phone number for an infoline, and a drinks table, and you could throw a rave. It felt like pure DIY.
To help that joy take root, someone—literally, three volunteers—just needed to do some math on the timing and make a Google Slide of the route. Voila! Our community had a bike bus.
Our cities have a lot of problems, especially Portland. Our recent attempt at a “Vision Zero” campaign should have been called “Vision Add a Zero”: Traffic deaths here are as high as they’ve been in three decades. We see lots of gnarly driver behavior at organized rides, and even some frowns at the bike bus from frustrated drivers.
But initiatives like the bike bus keep popping up nevertheless: the depave movement, community solar and community choice aggregation, community broadband. These are lower-case “c” community initiatives, of and by places. They’re not driven by institutions as much as by individuals who know how to surf the tangents of institutions, work in the gray areas around them, and above all else harness popular momentum.
The bike bus might not change the world. But all these things added together stand a chance. And I’m happy to be living in a world where you can still make things happen with a couple of people that care, just enough to show up on time and try an idea out. (NP)
“Wider efforts to create a 15-minute city—where every resident’s needs, for leisure and work, can be reached by bike or foot in a quarter of an hour—will put the brakes on car use even further.” (NP)
“Helmer’s proudest moment was seeing thousands of students enjoying the new beach-like river banks. ‘I know how good it is for biodiversity, but for 99% of people that is not at the forefront of their minds. In the end it is all about people. If they like it, there is no turning back.’” (NP)
“A disaster, I used to believe, calls for a hero. A Navy SEAL, an EMT, or a firefighter with a neck as thick as a tree trunk. Maybe that hero could even be me, a bike-addicted mom of two. It’s taken me this long to say: I can’t do it alone. I can’t save anyone singlehanded, not even my own kids. And you probably can’t either—not with the right flag and an 8x8 truck and a 12-gauge shotgun, not with a multitool or pocket stove or 10 emergency water filters. But we can, with each other.” (NP)