For most people, commuting to school means a simple car pool or a school bus. In Fairhaven, one elementary school has taken commuting to a new level with an organized student bike commute every Friday. They’re calling the new program, the “Bike Bus.”
The Bike Bus began with the new school year in September. More than fifty kids and their parents turned up in the center of Fairhaven to ride their bikes to school on the bike path.
Last year, one of Fairhaven’s neighborhood schools, Rogers School, closed, and many of its students were sent to Leroy Wood School. The Wood school is larger and newer, and just a little over a mile from the town center. That got Mat Coes of the Fairhaven Bikeway Committee thinking. He saw the change as an opportunity to start a neighborhood commute. He had heard about a program called Safe Routes to School.
“It’s an amazing program,” he said. “It’s a national program that’s administered by the state, and they’ve just got it all set up, so it’s very easy.”
Safe Routes to School is a federal program promoting healthy alternatives to fuel-based transportation. Erin Reed is the Massachusetts coordinator. She says that the goal is to show kids there are safe and fun ways to get around the community without using a car.
“Safe Routes to School educates students, parents, and community members on the value of safely walking and bicycling to and from school,” Reed said. “And it seeks to incorporate these initiatives as active and healthy transportation options for youth as they get older and make their own daily transportation choices.”
For participating schools, getting a program up and running involves a few steps. First, the town is evaluated on how kids can get to school by walking and riding bikes. Based on the findings, the program works with the community to build any necessary infrastructure, like stop signs and crosswalks. And then - the education piece - they offer classes and workshops about safety and healthy choices. Here in Massachusetts, Safe Routes to School is currently working with over 600 public elementary and middle schools.
With Mat Coes’ help, Wood School got involved. Conveniently, Fairhaven’s bike path, the Phoenix Trail, leads directly from the closed elementary school, where the bike commuters gather, to a point 300 yards from Wood School. Those last 300 yards are along a busy street – so, to be safe, the Bikeway Committee, police, and school officials decided that the kids have to dismount and walk the rest of the way.
“We’re lucky,” Coe said. “The bike path makes it possible. If we had to do this on the street, it would be a much tougher sell for the parents.”
And parents are the backbone of this program. If they didn’t feel the Bike Bus was a safe option, there would be no commute. Here in Fairhaven, the neighborhood families come out excited and eager to participate, pretty much guaranteeing the program’s success.
A dedicated group of parents and grandparents volunteer their time as commute chaperones and then grab a cup of coffee once the kids are in school. Julianne Kelly is an active member of the Bikeway Committee and her granddaughters are enthusiastic riders.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “We need our kids to be more physically active and this is such a wonderful, community-based, safe way to do that.”
The Bike Bus has wrapped up for the winter now. The first Friday of November, only a handful of kids showed up ready to brave the cold. And soon it will be too snowy and icy to safely bike to school.
But, this isn’t the end of the project. When the Bike Bus starts up again in the spring there are plans to invite local cyclists to speak and ride with the kids, to add a few more commuting days, and to have those last 300 yards of the commute assessed for a safer solution. Safe Routes to School is also writing a case study about Fairhaven because of its resounding success in the community. In the next few years, more schools will be looking to emulated Fairhaven’s simple plan. Organizers say, a bike path and active families are all they need for success.