The Reluctant Bike Bus Organiser
This post is the follow up to a British Cycling webinar Start A Bike Bus To School which I helped to present on 17th June 2020. You can access the recording of the webinar here.
Warning: Long Post!
This is possibly the longest post I have ever written. To the point that I wondered whether I should actually make it a series of posts. However, lots of people have asked me about how to set up and run a bike bus and I wanted to provide all the information I could. So yes, it’s a lot to read. However, the results of the before and after polls we ran on the webinar make me think it is worth while.
(Just in case you’re on a small screen, that’s 70% not planning to run a bike bus before and 63% aiming to plan a bike bus after the webinar.)
For those (like me) who really don’t like reading big documents on screen, watch this space for a downloadable pdf of the information too…
Bear in mind that there is no one model for running a bike bus. Each one is unique. While lots of organisations are supportive of bike buses, they are not coordinated by anyone. This post is based on my own experience and the way I have chosen to run my bike bus. Use the bits you find useful – ignore the bits you do not!
School Travel and Me
Having done the ‘school run’ (and before that the nursery run, and before that the playgroup run) by cargo bike for the past six years, travel to school is a topic which is dear to my heart.
I have been on the Parent Council ‘School Travel Action Group’ for my childrens’ school for a couple of years, helping to write the School Travel Plan and to promote active travel to school. As a Breeze Champion, I have always promoted my rides through the school to support more women to cycle, because more women cycling often means more children cycling.
In Edinburgh, bike buses have been spreading across the city over the past year or so and other members of the school travel group were really keen for our school to start up the same. Since I am a qualified Ride Leader and cycle coach, all eyes turned to me. I however, was a bit more reluctant…
What Is A Bike Bus?
A bike bus is a shared ride, along a set route to a set point – in this case my childrens’ primary school. In theory they could be to anywhere. People can join the ride at the start point, or at ‘stops’ along the way. They often run monthly, although there is at least one in this area of Edinburgh which now runs every two weeks. (NOTE: by ‘now’ I mean it did pre-Covid, and hopefully will post-covid).
Let’s be very clear, there are no actual buses involved – I had to clarify this with one very confused parent who couldn’t understand why we would hire a bus in order to transport bikes to school! The idea of it being a ‘bus’ is that you can hop on (or off) where it suits you. For a great video of a bike bus showing families joining as it passes, have a look at the Galway School Cycle Bus.
Bike buses to school are open to children and their parents on whatever form of self-powered two wheels they favour – pedal cycles, balance bikes, bikes with stabilisers, scooters, fancy bikes, bikes with baskets, bikes with rust…you name it!
Bike buses can range from a tiny handful of participants (I have run one with three participants – me and my two children – it was very very very wet that day) to a couple of hundred participants. In Edinburgh they tend to be very informal in that nobody signs in or out and you never really know how many people might turn up when you organise one.
On open roads, bike buses frequently occupy the full width of the lane. Note that this is the full width of the lane, not the width of the road. This is perfectly legal. A bike bus is a very visible – and therefore very safe – way for children to travel by bike. It does make it difficult for cars to pass, but this is part of the point. Other road users can only pass if it is extremely safe to do so – and with children in particular, extremely safe is good. The nature of their journeys is that they do not hold anyone up for very long. Also, by bunching riders up across the full lane, the bike bus is therefore shorter, and so easier to pass.
So, that is what a bike bus is. There are also a couple of things which a bike bus is not:
- A guided ride
- A babysitting service
It is very important to stress that this is not a transport to school service. Parents bring their children and remain responsible for them throughout the ride. The only exception to this could be older children who already cycle to school without an adult and who would like to join. If they do so, then this is with the parent’s understanding that nobody on the ride will take individual responsibility for their child.
I’ll say it again because it’s really important – everyone who joins the bike bus, does so at their own risk.
The Reluctant Bike Bus Organiser
But I still didn’t want to organise one.
The thing is, having cycled the school run and ridden bikes in many guises for so long, I have encountered some utterly appalling driving. Close passes, poor infrastructure and random abuse are an almost daily occurrence. This doesn’t stop me from cycling because I am confident on a bike and I refuse to be bullied.
Then my cargo bike snapped in half.
We needed a new way to get to school.
Fortunately, we had just acquired a secondhand tandem. Until the cargo bike was fixed, the school run now involved me and the youngest on the tandem, and my eldest on his own bike alongside me.
And it wasn’t that bad.
Actually, they both loved it.
Cycling to school without a cargo bike was actually alright.
Well in that case….
The Bike Bus to Corstorphine Primary started in September 2019 and has run monthly since (or at least, until the schools all closed!). In March 2020 we started our second bike bus which runs on the same day, so we have one from the east and one from the west of the catchment.
Why Organise A Bike Bus?
Bike buses are not going to solve all the issues around school travel. They are not going to convert the entire school community to active travel instead of cars.
But they do so many wonderful things:
- They support those who would like to cycle to school but are afraid to.
- They showcase routes to get to school.
- They allow people to realise that cycling to school is actually OK (like I did).
- They allow parents and carers to see how much their children enjoy cycling to school.
And more importantly than any of that – kids love bike buses!
You could argue that a bike bus is a publicity stunt.
Perhaps, But I don’t see this as a bad thing.
As a publicity stunt, a bike bus will:
- Increase the visibility of children on bikes, on the road and normalise this. There is absolutely no reason why children should not be cycling on our roads, as long as a parent or carer has looked realistically at how to manage this. I think it would be better if children ride mostly on traffic free paths – because that is more fun – but the infrastructure to do this is not always there. Children are still perfectly entitled to ride on the roads…responsibly (the same as everyone else).
- Broaden the definition of what a cyclist is. So many ways to cycle, so many images.
- Demonstrate that some families do want to cycle to school, and will do so if they feel safe and supported.
- Demonstrate the need for safe, segregated cycling infrastructure from houses to schools.
How to Start Your Bike Bus To School
Hopefully some people reading this will now be thinking that this sounds like a good thing and maybe they could start their own bike bus.
Step 1: Plan
I’m not going to lie, the planning does take a bit of time. But, you really only need to do it once. After that, you’re just adapting as needed.
Some points to think about when you are planning.
In particular, think about:
- Start point. You will need a space where people can congregate with their bikes without causing an obstruction or putting themselves or anyone else in danger.
- End point. Yes, you are going to school, but this isn’t necessarily the actual end point. For our school there is a very narrow pavement, a crossing, then a narrow gate right outside the school. This would be tricky with lots of people and bikes at the same time. We therefore end at the park just opposite the school. This means the children get a play at the play park if we have spare time, and it staggers people taking their children across to school from there.
- Bike parking. Is there enough at the school? Are there alternatives otherwise? Think creatively and there is always a way.
- Stops. Ideally, people should be able to join the bike bus as it passes them, or at set stops. Great if you can do it. For our bike bus this wasn’t going to work. We actually leave the school catchment almost as soon as we set off and don’t go back into it until we are practically at the school. There really wasn’t another feasible route option. Just because it isn’t ideal doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
- Hills. If you have them you might just have to ride them! Just be mindful that little legs can get tired very easily. When you are planning your route, try to think like a six year old on a heavy bike with stabilisers.
- The return journey. Generally bike buses are one way. Organising a bike bus back again is tricky as people go off to all sorts of places at all sorts of times. My children will spend hours in the playground with their friends after school given a chance. Not taking people back again after school ,might mean that they drive down to collect bikes, but that’s OK – this is the start of something for them (hopefully). Unless it suits you, don’t give yourself the added pressure of the return journey.
- Time of year. Are you going to run your bike bus all year round or just in the summer? We run all year round, but I expect fewer people through the winter. Think in particular about when you are going to start your bike bus. A first bike bus in January is likely to attract less support than one which starts in a warmer month. I went for September and the start of a new school year. Also bear in mind that the school run can be dark in the depths of winter.
- What time to start: Allow far more time than you think you need! For one, people will be late. Getting children out of the house on time is a nightmare. Also, children can be very very slow and that is OK – you should not be needing to hurry them or they won’t enjoy it. For your first bike bus, you are best to start too early and arrive too early. You can always make then next one a little later. You do not want to be late for school!
The more adults you can rope in to support your bike bus, the better. Personally, I would recommend an absolute minimum of three (including yourself) to cover a front rider, a back marker and a junction controller (more on this below). Bear in mind that things happen, and having extra adults is always handy in case someone doesn’t make it. If you can get some adult supporters who will not have their own children along on the day. this is great as it means their full attention is on the bike bus.
On the subject of full attention, make sure you think through how you will manage your own children during the bike bus. Mine are still quite young and I always use the cargo bike for the bike bus so I don’t really need to keep an eye on them then.
If you have enough adults, it really helps to be able to designate someone as photographer.
Where to find your adult support:
- School staff. Hopefully the school management will be keen to support your bike bus. Just bear in mind that school staff are incredibly busy and that support might just amount to retweeting or sending emails out for you.
- Ride Leaders. I am a qualified Ride Leader through British Cycling as I am also a Breeze Champion. I also rope in a couple of Breeze Champion pals and usually have at least one of them with me on the bike bus. Personally, I think it really helps to have people who are experienced ride leaders. See if there are local Ride Leaders who might be able to help you out. If nothing else, they might be able to run through how they usually lead rides and give you a couple of pointers. Try contacting the British Cycling Breeze or Guided Rides programmes for advice on local leaders. Ultimately, you don’t need qualified leaders as this is not a led ride.
- Other parents. Other parents may well be reasonably confident cyclists who could act as back marker or front leader for you.
- Local cyclists / cycle campaigners. Most areas have a dedicated band of cycle campaigners who put massive amounts of time and energy into supporting others to ride bikes. You may well find that some are willing to help with your bike bus. For me, Twitter was a wonderful thing in getting the word out. You will be amazed how many people will go out of their way to help.
- Community Police. In Edinburgh, the local community police have been incredibly supportive of bike buses. When we risk assessed our second bike bus, there was one junction we were concerned about. Despite being part of the designated cycle route, it can be tricky to cross as an individual on a bike, never mind with a group. The alternative routes also had their drawbacks. We contacted the community police…and they came out and stopped the traffic for the bike bus to cross.
- Council staff. You may find that your local council has staff who are able to support you in some form – whether that be moral or material support. I was very fortunate to have the support of one of the Road Safety Officers, who also happens to be a cycling enthusiast.
- Other bike bus organisers. if there are other bike buses in your area, make contact. The organisers are unlikely to be able to help out on the day as they will be getting their own children to their own schools. However, they will be more than happy to advise and they may have contacts who can join you. I was very lucky in having a number of experienced bike bus organisers nearby in Edinburgh and they were a brilliant help to me.
A note on older children. By older, I mean those in the last year or two of primary school. Bike buses tend to appeal mainly to the younger children who always travel to school with an adult. Depending on your area, you may have older children who already cycle to school on their own. If you want to appeal to older children and encourage them to join the bus, you could try designating them as ‘ride buddies’ to encourage the younger children along the way.
Carrying out a risk assessment is a useful process as it forces you to really think through how your bike bus will work. When I set up my bike bus, I put an email out through the school to say that I was going to do a ‘dummy run’ one afternoon and that anyone who was interested was welcome to join me. I timed it to arrive at school for pick up time in the hope of encouraging other parents to join me. Our local Road Safety Officer also came along.
If you haven’t done a risk assessment before, my advice is…don’t go overboard. The main point of the exercise should be to think things through, not to write a massive document which it is unlikely anyone but you will ever read.
There are three different aspects to your risk assessment:
- Generic risk assessment. These are the risks which are there for every bike ride. For example the risk of two or more cyclists colliding, the risk associated with other road users and the risk of someone falling off their bike. Most of these risks will be managed through your pre-ride briefing.
- Specific risk assessment. These are the risks which are unique to your route. You do not need to include every junction because these are covered by the generic risks. An example of a route specific risk I have is a blind corner where parked cars frequently force oncoming traffic into the path of the bike bus. I manage the risk by going slightly ahead of the group to check it is clear and warn drivers of our approach if it is not.
- Dynamic risk assessment: These are the risks which you could not foresee and which you deal with as you come across them. For example, an overnight downpour might of left a huge puddle or gravel in your path. You manage these as you come across them.
Insurance / Liability
When I first spoke to my childrens’ school about starting a bike bus, they were very keen….but also keen to ensure that they took on no responsibility or liability for it. Fair enough. That is why we have the ‘Bike Bus to Corstorphine Primary School’ rather than the ‘Corstorphine Primary Bike Bus’.
It is very important to stress that a bike bus is not a led ride. You are taking on no responsibility for participants, and therefore no liability. Make sure that this is very clear when you promote your bike bus. Also, reiterate it in your pre-ride briefing.
Let’s be very very very clear on this one – EVERYONE who attends a bike bus, does so at their own risk.
In addition to stressing this, you must make sure that you obey all the rules of the road completely. For example, that means giving way where appropriate at junctions and NOT stopping the traffic to allow the bike bus to pass.
As a qualified British Cycling Ride Leader I am insured for leading rides – HOWEVER there are very specific requirements which must be adhered to for this to be valid. This includes a 1:8 ratio of leaders to participants on the ride. Unless you are planning a very small bike bus or you have access to a big pool of qualified Ride Leaders, you are unlikely to meet this requirement.
Cycling UK also offer ‘Cycle Activity Provider’ insurance. Again it has some specific requirements in order to be valid. I have to say I do not know if it would work for a bike bus, but it might be worth talking to the providers if you feel you do need some form of insurance.
Helmets and High Vis:
The use of helmets and high vis on bikes can be a contentious issue…and it’s not a can of worms I am planning to open here!
Personally, I wear a helmet and I insist that my children wear helmets. I only wear high vis when it’s dark, and I expect my children to do the same. This is my prerogative as a parent.
I leave it entirely up to parents to decide whether their children should wear helmets or high vis on the bike bus. This is their prerogative as parents.
After all, they are attending the bike bus entirely at their own risk.
You will need to plan for different weather conditions and how they may affect your bike bus. To a degree this will depend on your route. For example if you use a path which floods in heavy rain and there are no alternative routes then you might need to cancel if it is wet. You may simply not be prepared to ride in the rain yourself.
My bike bus route is the route I would be taking anyway to get my children to school, and I cycle the school run in all weather, so I go ahead in almost any weather. The line I draw is with ice. Because my route uses a shared path which is not gritted, if it was very icy I would cancel the bike bus. I have ice tyres on my cargo bike, most are not so lucky!
In practise, I find that far fewer people turn up if the weather is bad. However, If you’re thinking that nobody will turn up for the bike bus in bad weather, have another look at the Wee Unicorns bike bus here in Edinburgh in February 2020.
ABOVE ALL ELSE:
It has to work for you.
If running the bike bus feels like an awful chore, you won’t keep it up. Plan your bike bus to suit you, even if that doesn’t always suit everyone else.
Step 2: Advertise
Advertising your bike bus is a lot easier if you have a supportive school who are prepared to send out an email to all families on your behalf. This helps me lots. If you can do this, great. Just bear in mind that parents get a lot of emails – and if they’re anything like me, they are quite selective about what they read!
Other options you could consider for advertising are:
- Facebook. Personally, I like Facebook events for advertising. I can put lots of detail in and can duplicate the event with the new date each month. It also gives me a bit of continuity as I can post the link for the next event in the previous event so people can note themselves as interested. This also gives me an idea of how many people might attend.
- Twitter. I use Twitter to advertise, but for me this mainly helps me get extra adult helpers. The school do retweet about the bike bus but I’m not sure how many families this actually reaches.
- WhatsApp. If your school is anything like mine then every year group has a parent’s WhatsApp group. If you can find a pal in each year group then this is a good way to remind families the day before the bike bus.
- Parent Council / PTA. Depending on the set up in your school these groups might have channels to communicate with families which you can use.
- Word of mouth. My bike bus started out as mostly people who already know me and it has grown from there as others see how the bike bus works.
Think about including as much information as you can when you advertise your bike bus. Be especially clear about no unaccompanied children and ‘at your own risk’. Again, I like the Facebook event setup for this as I can put the bare minimum information in an email from the school and direct people to the event page for full details.
Also think about your tone in writing about your bike bus. Many families don’t cycle to school because they are afraid to do so. This should not happen, but it is the reality. The bike bus is the place to reassure people that it can be done safely, not to shout about how dangerous the roads are. It’s a bike bus…not reclaim the streets!
Step 3: Pedal!
My bike buses, and the others I know from Edinburgh are very informal. Participants do not sign up or book a place, they just turn up. This can make the morning of your first bike bus rather a nervous time as you have no idea how many to expect!
A few pointers for the day of your bike bus:
- Be early…but expect lateness. For me this is the hardest part on the day – getting my own children ready and out of the door early. There is nothing like time pressure to ensure that your children become incapable of putting on their own socks (or shoes, or jacket…). I am very lucky to be able to rely on a friend and local Breeze Champion who helps me each month, does not have children on the ride, and is the earliest person I know! I have never yet arrived to anything before her.
- Be welcoming. People may well be feeling nervous about the ride. They will be looking to you to put them at ease.
- Be understanding…but not too understanding. I will wait a little while for people who have said they are coming but do not appear. But the bottom line is that you need to get everyone to school before that bell.
I give a quick briefing before we set off each month, I include:
- You are taking part at your own risk and remain responsible for any children you brought along.
- Point out the front and rear markers – nobody in front of the front or behind the rear riders.
- Point out the person who is going to manage the junctions (more below).
- Everybody is expected to follow the rules of the road.
- We will be taking up the full width of the lane while we ride, but riders must not cross the middle line, unless we are passing parked cars.
- Try to keep close to the riders in front of you.
- Adults to position themselves to the outside, between the cars and the children.
- Don’t ride in the gutter and give a wide berth to parked cars in case of surprise door openings.
- Photos will probably be taken and used for publicity. If you do not want you or your child in any photos please let me know.
And then off we go!
For me three adults are the absolute minimum to manage the ride. More is great This is our set up:
- Front marker. I always ride at the front and am the person nobody should pass. As such, my biggest job is to set the pace. This usually involves braking lots. Nobody on the ride, right down to the tiniest person on a balance bike, should feel under pressure to go faster than they are comfortable at. If you are setting the pace, keep it very very slow and keep looking around to check.
- Rear marker. The person at the back. Nobody goes behind this person. This is a pretty low pressure job and it’s easy to designate it to a confident participant.
- Junction controller. This is the role my other qualified ride leader takes. She is also British Cycling trained so we both know the system and how to work together – it works for us. The junction controller rides at the front alongside me. When we are coming towards a junction (or traffic lights, or anything else needing a stop / go judgement) she goes a few metres ahead to see if it is clear. If it is, she waves us on, if not she signals for me to stop the group. If part of the group get through a junction then the group needs to give way, she will stop the remainder of the group until it is clear and then wave them through. From the front, I keep an eye on whether the group has split, and I will stop so we can regroup if necessary. Once the whole group is through, the junction controller will overtake the group to rejoin me at the front, ready for the next junction.
This is the system which works for us, but use what suits you. Just make sure you have run through your own system before the day so you all know what you are doing.
Step 4: Post Event
Give yourself a pat on the back!
Bike buses are generally far too early in the day for a glass of wine, but you have definitely earned a coffee!
Before you relax too much, have a quick think about how it went. Is there anything you want to change for next time? Is there anything you need to add to or change in your risk assessment? Did the timing work out or do you need to change it slightly?
If you can scribble down any pointers to yourself now, then the planning for the next month is pretty much done. Just duplicate that event page, change the date, make any revisions and you’re done!
The Bigger Picture
There are so many other aspects of school travel you could get involved in if a bike bus is not enough for you!
- Help write a School Travel Plan
- Campaign for better active travel infrastructure in your area
- Lead Breeze rides or Guided Rides in your area. I run a Breeze ride after the school bell on the days of my bike bus to offer mums a relaxed, sociable ride without their children (and with a cake stop!)
- Get involved with bikeability training in your school
- Run puncture repair workshops. There are always lots of people who would like support with this.
- Encourage more people to set up more bike buses to more schools.
Or…just stick with the bike bus. Know your limits and don’t take on too much.
The most helpful advice I was given when I started planning my bike bus was:
- It’s not as hard as you might think.
- Make it work for you. There are no hard and fast rules with bike buses.
- Start small. Don’t take on too much. Sometimes it’s best to start with just one stop then add more later.
- Don’t measure success by numbers. You might get 2 people or 200 people along to your bike bus. It really doesn’t matter.
Hopefully this guide has been useful. I have tried to include everything I think would be helpful, but it can be a hard one to judge. If you have any questions or if there is anything else you would like to know about setting up and running a bike bus, please do email me: firstname.lastname@example.org . My aim is to keep modifying this post to include anything else people want to know and also to produce a downloadable guide, so please do ask away. If you asked a question on the webinar which was not answered then I will be adding the answers in too. In the meantime, there is plenty more information out there.
Cycling Scotland has also produced a ‘Guide to Setting Up and Running a Bike Bus’. This is free to download and includes a risk assessment template.
Our Bike Bus also has information on the Cleaner Greener Corstorphine website.
I use my business Facebook page, Active Cycle Coaching, to set up each bike bus as an event. Facebook events work for me. I like the fact that I can post plenty of information there and duplicate it each month, modifying details if necessary. Asking people to click interested also gives me an idea of how many are planning to attend and means I can post a message if there is a last minute disaster such as ice meaning I have to cancel. I am more than happy for anyone to copy and paste the information in my events and adapt it to suit you.
The Blackford Safe Routes group also have a website with a guide to organising a bike bus.
Davidson Mains Primary School Bike Bus has lots of great information on their website.
Bike buses are spreading rapidly and lots of organisers use Twitter to shout about them. Try following: @mummycycle (of course!), @bikebusedin, @blackfordsafer1, @adamtranter, @CyclingBusLmk, and @cycle_bus. We all love to connect with each other so you’ll soon find more to follow!