Can “Bike Buses” Address School Transportation and Environmental Challenges?

One school in Oregon thinks “bike buses” — or group bike-to-school rides — can help ease ongoing school transportation issues, while also addressing environmental health and promoting physical activity.

In Oregon, a physical education teacher launched a “bike bus” program through which students forgo vehicle transportation and bike together to and from campus one day a week. Today, the program has attracted nearly a third of his school’s students, transforming how that school approaches busing, physical activity, and the environment.

Students at Alameda Elementary in Portland, student ride their bikes to and from school with parents and other guardians in a procession of bikes and music. The program has been described as “nothing like the car-choked frustration of drop-off at many elementary schools.”

The program, which started last Spring, attracted about 75 kids a week at the time. By Fall of this school year, it’s up to about 170 students a week. The program leader and local physical education teacher, Sam Baltimore, is not only interested in changing how students travel to and from school as a way of improving their physical health, but also in strengthening communities and improving the environment.

Can “bike buses” offer a solution to several problems?

Initiatives like the bike bus might offer solutions to a multitude of issues facing school transportation, namely workforce challenges and environmental concerns.

Workforce concerns

School districts around the country, including Maryland, are continuing to face a severe shortage of qualified school bus drivers that is wreaking havoc on schools and families alike. Counties throughout Maryland have enacted various policies to address the issue, including increased pay, simplified and expedited licensing, and hiring fairs.

These challenges even attracted the attention of legislative committees last year, which held a joint hearing on the issue of school bus driver shortages and workforce issues.

Environmental impact 

In addition to the challenge of school transportation workforce development, policymakers are also setting their eyes on addressing environmental impacts of fossil fuel-based school transportation. In fact, during the 2022 legislative session, Maryland passed a bill to fund and implement an electric school bus pilot program to test private-public partnerships to replace fossil fuel-based school buses with “greener” electric buses.

The federal government is also eyeing the issue, including a $500 million grants program via the new Clean School Bus (CSB) program  established by the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). That program is funded at $5 billion over the next five years and was authorized to help local school districts replace existing school buses with clean and zero-emission ones.

Legislative reform could needed

Current state law in Oregon — which is not unique — can serve as an example of reforms needed to meet the evolving challenges of school transportation — and how to fund them:

But current state policy in Oregon only allows school districts to spend transportation money on transporting kids by bus, not by, say, buying bikes or paying people to lead bike buses or walking school buses, he [Sam Balto] says. He warns that relying on volunteers like himself to organize and lead the bike buses is “inequitable and unsustainable.” As a parent with young kids, Balto says, he might only be able to keep leading the routes through the end of the year. “I’m not going to do this my whole life,” he says.

Given the amount of money state and local governments already spend on transportation, he says repurposing those dollars could have profound effects

Read more about the bike bus initiatives.

Learn more about the school transportation shortage.

Explore more about federal electric school bus programs and grants.