The bike bus – human infrastructure for a car culture

In some cities, groups of people are bicycling to work or school in groups, thanks to apps that allow them to coordinate their commute. A Los Angeles researcher calls it ‘human infrastructure’. Here are some of the examples I’ve seen over the years.

Los Angeles – “Carpooling with bikes”

Civic Bicycle Commuting (CiBiC) has created an app known as Pave that lets groups of 10 to 12 – pods, as they are known – cycle together down the middle of a traffic lane. Riders enter their location, destination and arrival time, and Pave groups them together. Each pod is led by two experts who priorize road safety over efficiency. 

CiBiC photo

Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation Challenge and led by UCLA, CiBiC is “an experimental transportation research project to encourage group bike commuting among residents of the Northeast LA neighborhoods of Chinatown, Solano Canyon, Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park, William Mead Homes, and adjacent areas.” It began Oct. 1, 2022.

A CiBiC survey found that area residents were keen to commute by bicycle but were afraid to do so, so the team began thinking about how to make it safer. That led the team to create ‘human infrastructure’. The pods of riders are led by two paid expert bikers, a “steward” in the front and a “mentor” at the back to communicate safety measures and signal turns with verbal and hand signs. When possible, riders bike two abreast, to take up an entire lane, and all must match the pace of the slowest rider.

“It’s not just an informal group of cyclists — it’s a public transportation system based on bicycles,” said CiBiC founder and principal investigator Fabian Wagmister, associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television. A CiBiC survey found 73% of respondents in the pilot area have commutes of less than five miles, 

LA Bike Trains, which also arranged bike commutes in groups with experienced volunteer conductors who served as guides, operated on four routes in the city for five years before the BIcycle Culture Institute, which sponsored it, shut down in 2020.

Portland, Oregon – Sam Balto’s ‘bike bus’

Every Wednesday morning, physical education teacher Sam Balto leads a caravan of about 170 children on their collective commute to school starting at about 8:10 a.m. He wears a neon yellow safety vest and blasts music on a portable speaker.

“This brings so much joy to so many people,” said Alison Warlitner, whose children attend Alameda Elementary School and join the bike commute each week. “It’s the coolest thing.” Her two children, ages 6 and 7, spring out of bed Wednesday mornings to join the bike caravan. 

Warlitner shared a video of the “bike bus” on TikTok, and it has been viewed more than 7 million times. She said she thinks it hit a nerve because of the sheer joy it spreads.

Balto’s bike bus is just for kids at his school, but he says anyone can create one.

It teaches kids about sustainability, it prepares them for the day at school, and it creates community, he says.

Barcelona, Spain – the ‘bicibus’

Since September 2021, more than 100 kids and parents hop on their bikes Friday mornings starting at 8 a.m. to ride to school and work. Bicibús, or bike bus, began in the city’s Eixample district, where it is building community while families fight for a safer, more environmentally friendly way for their kids to get to school.

Mireia Boix/Bicibús Eixample

Three schools are located on Entença Street, a busy road where about 20,000 vehicles drive every day, and the bicibus makes three ‘stops’ along the way as it travels to the schools. The ride lasts about 25 minutes. “It all started with a group of five families, a lot of determination and a deep sense of the greater good,” said Mireia Boix, a parent who rides with her 5-year-old son. Boix said with the bicibús, she feels a sense of relief when her son bikes to school on Fridays because she knows he’ll be safe.

Some parents carry younger children on their bikes, and police vehicles have started to escort the group. Bystanders stop and take pictures of the group. Some children even sport bicibús jerseys. Some on social media have commented on how the bicibús shows what it means to rethink public space.

Parents are hoping for a school-friendly bike lane that is separated from the main traffic that would allow children to bike with their families. This kind of lane already exists in other parts of Barcelona, Boix said.

Netherlands – the ‘bike bus”

Each bike bus holds eleven kids up to the age of 12, who, along with an adult driver, provide the pedal-power to get to school and back. Made by the Dutch company De Café Racer, the bike is designed for kids ranging from four to 12 years of age, and one adult. 

The bike can reach a speed of 10 miles per hour, is available in a variety of colors–including blue, purple, red, and school-bus yellow–and has adjustable seats. It also comes with a music system, a canvas cover to ward off rain, and an auxiliary electric motor for when the hills get too steep or the pedal pushers run out of steam.

The bike’s builder, Thomas Tolkamp, told Co.Exist magazine that they had gotten interest from all over the world. It originally was designed for out of school care.

Featured image: LA Bike Train, photo by BCI