If you don’t yet know what a “bike bus” is, it is time to take note. The concept started gaining social media attention in 2021 through videos from Barcelona showing hundreds of children cycling to school together while taking over entire streets. After the “bicibús” spread on social media, the bike bus started gaining traction beyond Barcelona: in Scotland, the Netherlands, the United States, and now, Ontario, Canada?
In my experience working as a School Travel Planner with elementary schools in Toronto, cycling as a way for students to get to school is rare. At the schools I’ve worked with, the proportion of students who bike to school is hardly ever higher than one per cent.
Meanwhile, more students get to school in a private vehicle than by walking or other active modes. As an avid cyclist myself, I find this a bit upsetting, not just because of the health and sustainability benefits of cycling over driving, but also because of how fun and convenient riding a bike can be!
Low cycling rates are sometimes attributed to distance, where students live too far from school to cycle. A bigger obstacle, however, is safety concerns, where parents perceive their children’s routes to school to be unsafe for cycling. Parents often report that the roads are too busy, that there are no bike lanes, and that people drive too dangerously. So, when I heard that bike buses have started popping up in Toronto and other Ontario cities, I was keen to talk with some of their organizers.
Toronto: Taking the roads back
I first connected with Jason Leaver and Marvin Macaraig in Toronto, two parents who became friends about two years ago while advocating for road safety along their children’s route to school. The route is missing sidewalks, is prone to a traffic bottleneck, and in front of the school it becomes so full of cars that children can have a hard time crossing the road.
When the two parents sought help from their local government to address these issues, they became frustrated by the lack of tangible support they received.
Taking matters into their own hands, Leaver and Macaraig started a Traffic Safety Committee with a few other parents at the school. One parent, who had seen bike buses on social media, suggested they start one; they understood it is safer to ride as a group, and it looked like fun. Leaver drafted a route, sent it to other students’ families, and in April 2023, he and Macaraig started leading a bike bus every Tuesday and Thursday morning.
The bike bus is made up of a group of students who cycle together regularly while also occasionally attracting curious newcomers. On its busiest day, there were 20-25 kids biking to school together.
Evelyn, Leaver’s 10-year-old daughter, says she enjoys riding with the bike bus because she gets to talk to her friends on her way to school. She also likes getting to school early enough to play with her friends before the bell rings.
One of Evelyn’s friends, despite living outside the school catchment area, still manages to join the bike bus regularly by getting dropped off with her bike at the start of the route.
In hindsight, Macaraig says that after two years of fruitless efforts to achieve safer roads, the bike bus feels like “our own little way to take back what we feel was rightfully ours and remove the friction of these morning drop-offs.”
On the days of the week when the bike bus doesn’t run, Macaraig sees fewer students biking to school — maybe, he thinks, because it’s scary to bike alone.
London: Cycling together is more fun than cycling alone
I also spoke with Gina Martin and Melody Viczko, two friends whose children attend school together in London, Ontario. Unlike Leaver and Macaraig, Martin and Viczko live in a quiet residential neighbourhood that feels safe for active travel.
They started their bike bus a few years ago after noticing that members of their community were already biking to school, and they thought it would be more fun to bike together in a group instead of individually. They started calling up other parents to invite them and their kids to join their weekly Friday morning bike ride to school.
Over the years, their bike bus has slowly gained momentum, with new stops being added as more students join. The initiative has become something that people look forward to and is loved by the local community. Martin explains that it’s become a “way of getting to know people,” of “building connections between the kids and different parents who show up.”
On the topic of safety, Martin says that biking in a group helps cyclists increase their visibility when sharing the road with cars and can also help them “feel more comfortable to take up more space.” Biking down the road with large trucks is a lot scarier when you’re alone.
Viczko describes how there can also be an informal educational component to the bike bus, where students pick up bike safety skills from each other (e.g., when making turns at intersections). Further, because of the bike bus, Viczko feels more confident in her son’s cycling skills, so that he can go biking with his friends on the weekend and enjoy the freedom of being on a bike.
Even though their neighbourhood feels safe for biking, Martin and Viczko say that London as a whole is not cycle-friendly, especially not the downtown area. London, like Toronto, needs better infrastructure for active travel, along with better land use planning and supportive services, programs, and education.
For policy makers wanting to support active travel, Green Communities Canada has a report on evidence-based policy recommendations for schools, school boards, municipalities, and the provincial government. The report was written in collaboration with the Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEAL) at Western University in London.
Is your community ready for a bike bus?
In Toronto and London, where cycling for transportation isn’t the norm (especially for kids), the bike buses give me hope.
I have hope that a little creativity can help mitigate the safety barriers associated with cycling. Furthermore, even in the car-centric province of Ontario, I feel hopeful that communities are gearing up to embrace cycling as a viable mode of transportation for people of all ages and abilities (note that bike buses can also be inclusive of students who ride scooters and wheelchairs).
If you’re considering starting a bike bus, the good news is that it isn’t hard to do. In fact, it can be rather simple to coordinate and get the word out.
All that’s really needed is a route, a way of sharing the route with others, and some parents to guide the way (tip: parents can take turns leading the route). That’s what I learned when speaking with the organizers named in this article, and from a webinar hosted by Active School Travel Canada.
If you need help getting started, I suggest watching the webinar recording and checking out the following articles:
- How to Set Up a Bike Bus at Your School
- Bike Buses: A Global Trend in Active School Transportation
- I Started a Bike Bus, and You Can Too
If you’ve started a bike bus in your community, please reach out; we would love to hear about it!