Walking School Buses and Bicycle Trains

Walking together to Badin Elementary School in Badin, North Carolina.

A walking school bus and bicycle train both consist of groups of students accompanied by adults that walk or bicycle a pre-planned route to school. Routes can originate from a particular neighborhood or, in order to include children who live too far to walk or bicycle, begin from a parking lot. They may operate daily, weekly or monthly. Often, they are started in order to address parents’ concerns about traffic and personal safety while providing a chance for parents and children to socialize.

Walking school buses and bicycle trains can be loosely structured or highly organized. For example, walking buses or bicycle trains can be as simple as neighborhood families deciding to walk or bicycle together. More formal, organized walking school buses and bicycle have a coordinator who recruits volunteers and participants, creates a schedule and designs a walking route. While requiring more effort, more structured walking school buses and bicycle trains offer the opportunity to involve more children.

Strategy: Walking School Bus or Bicycle Train

A bicycle train in Mill Valley, California.

Definition

Group of children that walk or bicycle to school together accompanied by one or more adults.

Advantages

  • Can be loosely structured or highly organized (see "Quick steps").
  • Can include a meeting point with a parking lot so children and parents who must drive can participate.

Considerations

  • Requires identifying appropriate routes.
  • Requires parents to walk with children or use waivers to address liability concerns.
  • More organized structure requires considerable planning.
  • Bicycle train participants need to wear helmets.

Quick steps to a walking school bus or bicycle train

Loose, informal structure

  1. Invite families who live nearby to walk or bicycle as a group.
  2. Pick a route and take a test walk or ride.
  3. Decide how often the group will travel together.
  4. Start walking or bicycling.

Highly organized, more formal structure

  1. Determine the amount of interest in a walking school bus or bicycle train. Contact potential participants and partners and identify a coordinator.
  2. Identify the route(s).
  3. Identify a sufficient number of adults to supervise walkers or bicyclists. (The Centers for Disease Control recommends one adult per three children for children ages 4 to 6 and one adult for six children for older elementary children ages 7 to 9 [9]. For bicyclists, one adult per three to six children is advisable.)
  4. Finalize logistical details including setting a time schedule, training volunteers and promoting participation.
  5. Kick off the activity.
  6. Track participation.
  7. Make changes to the activity as needed.

See The Walking School Bus: Combining Safety, Fun and the Walk to School for more detailed guidance.

Putting It Into Practice: Informal Walking School Bus

Ephesus Elementary School, Chapel Hill, NC

Ephesus Elementary School walkers on International Walk to School Day

At Ephesus Elementary School, a loosely organized walking school bus gets families out the door. In the past few years, more families have started walking, bicycling and riding scooters to school. In various neighborhoods, parents and children meet and walk to school together. If a parent is unable to walk on a particular day, another parent is contacted to supervise and walk with the child. According to parents, one of the greatest benefits of walking to school is the chance to socialize and get to know other families.

Putting It Into Practice: Walking School Bus

Olive Chapel Elementary School, Apex, NC

Olive Chapel Elementary students walk to school.

In 2004, the Olive Chapel Walk to School Coalition kicked-off a monthly walking school bus, giving families an opportunity to walk to school despite the construction that neighborhoods near the school had experienced in recent years.

"Neighborhood captains," parents and children walk from six separate departure points to the school. One route meets in a parking lot so families who live too far to walk can participate. Reminders about the monthly walk are sent home on the previous Friday and children who participate receive prizes.

Parent volunteers act as neighborhood captains. At the start of the school year, they receive safety training. During the walks, they wear green vests and use whistles to communicate to children when they need to stop. Because the activity is designed to be family-oriented, parents are required to walk with their children to school, but they are free to arrange among themselves to supervise each other's children.

A volunteer parent and the school physical education teacher share leadership of this growing activity. Since it began, one route has had as many as 200 people who regularly walk.

Putting It Into Practice: Structured Daily Walking School Bus

Natomas Park Elementary School, Sacramento, CA

A walking school bus at Natomas Park Elementary School

At Natomas Park Elementary School in Sacramento, California parents organize the walking school bus which includes five routes based on where children live and a schedule with times for each stop. In order to participate, parents register their children ahead of time.

Walk leaders include parents and employees from a local business, which is a sponsor of the activity. Each volunteer must have a background check prior to participation. Training for volunteers, provided by the parent leader, includes first aid, CPR and pedestrian safety. While walking, volunteers wear vests and carry first aid kits.

To recognize the walkers’ achievements, parent volunteers track the total number of miles walked during the school year and announce it at a year-end assembly. Walkers also receive T-shirts and certificates.

About 50 children participate and many more children are now seen walking to school. Organizers have recently expanded the activity to include remote sites where parents can drop off their children and adult volunteers walk with the children the rest of the way to school.

Putting It Into Practice: Walking School Bus

C.P. Smith Elementary School, Burlington, VT

Cold weather does not stop C.P. Smith's walking school bus.

C.P. Smith Elementary School's walking school bus has operated every Wednesday since March 2005, as part of a Safe Routes to School program.

While the neighborhood bordering the school has a fairly complete sidewalk system, some families were concerned about their children walking to school with the considerable traffic congestion along the route. In winter 2005, parents organized a meeting with other interested families to discuss their concerns and develop guidelines for a walking school bus. The group determined the bus's route, time of departure, meeting points and other details.

Now, every Wednesday morning the bus departs from a walk leader's house with a small group of children. For late arriving students, a closed garage door indicates that the bus has left the station. The group continues along a major roadway picking up children along the way. Some parents join in the walk while others escort their children to the stop and leave when the bus arrives. There is no written schedule, however organizers plan to install signs along the route indicating stops and schedule.

Before the walking school bus began, approximately six children walked this route to school. Now on Walking Wednesdays there are between 25 and 40 children and the traffic congestion along the route has all but disappeared.

Putting It Into Practice: Bike Trains at Mason Elementary

Duluth, GA

Planning their kick-off Walk and Roll to School Day, the Mason Safe Routes to School Team thought they’d include a bicycle train, but with only one student ever seen bicycling to school, they didn’t actually expect more than a rider or two to pedal with the train that morning. To their great surprise, 45 children showed up with bicycles and helmets, eager to participate in Mason’s first-ever bicycle train.

With that overwhelming start, the Mason bicycle train has become an integral part of the school’s monthly “Walk and Roll to School Day” events. The train is staffed by volunteers from the local Gwinnett County Bicycle Users Group and a few Mason parents. The “engineer” leads the group, the “caboose” brings up the rear, and adults are interspersed between the children, with a typical ratio of 1 adult to 4 children. The train has two starting “stations” in the morning, and the two groups merge to form a large train that rides down the highly traveled road to the school. In the afternoon, the bicycle trains run back to their starting “stations.

Prior to each monthly event, the Safe Routes Team sends each student home with a flyer announcing the Walking School Bus and Bike Train schedule. The flyer includes a permission slip, and students must return the permission slip signed by a parent in order to participate. This procedure helps clarify liability issues and assists in planning for the number of adults needed for the event. Children in grades K-2 must have a parent accompany them. At the start of each ride, the train leaders are provided a list of participants.

Riders are asked to bring their own helmet and lock, but the bicycle train leaders always have extra helmets on hand. As the group gathers, the leaders distribute bright neon-green reflective safety vests, provided by the Georgia Department of Transportation. The vests provide high visibility for safety on the road and have become the “signature” of the Mason bike train

A few years ago, bicycling to school was unheard of at Mason. The monthly well-supervised bicycle trains have shown families in the neighborhoods around the school that bicycling can be a transportation option and many have now incorporated bicycling into their own daily travel patterns.