Sunday, June 16, 2024

Darren Buck leads a bike bus in Cambridge on Friday. (Photo: Tom Meek)

The Peabody/Rindge Avenue Upper School bike bus is about to notch its second anniversary. It launched at the end of June 2022, just as Cambridge was emerging from pandemic lockdowns and shut-ins, and has operated nearly every Friday of the academic calendar since.

A bike bus is a parent-chaperoned group of children who ride to school together. There’s safety in numbers that provide visibility and street presence, and participants get a low-stress, fresh-air outing. The Peabody/RAUS group led by parents Katherine Beaty and Darren Buck is one of nine bike bus initiatives in Greater Boston and the only one in Cambridge. There are three in Somerville.

Beaty started the bike bus because being a bike advocate in the more traditional, political sense had become taxing, she said, noting its meetings, campaigns, emails and follow-ups yielding little immediate result or much joy. “I wanted to do something that would bring me joy and get my kids to school,” she said, speaking before a bike bus presentation she and Buck gave Wednesday as part of the Streetwise lecture series at the Aeronaut Brewery. Buck, who works in transportation policy, was in the midst of scouting cities to relocate his family to and happened to encounter Beaty leading a group of kids on bike. He knew immediately Cambridge was the place to land, he said.

One of the leading proponents for the bike bus movement is “Coach” Sam Balto, a Portland, Oregon, physical education educator who taught at the David A. Ellis School in Roxbury. He’s also a self-described tactical urbanist – activists such as those in Critical Mass or the Boston Bike Party who take a physical approach and might spray paint bike lanes on a street in the middle of the night. When in Boston, Balto used to place cardboard cutouts of Tom Brady around the Ellis school to get cars to slow down. Beaty referred to him as her “guru.”

A May 8 ride in recognition of National Walk, Bike and Roll to School Day included performers from the School of Honk. (Photo: Nathan Klima)

In their Streetwise presentation, Beaty and Buck outlined the three steps necessary for a successful bike bus. First is finding a calm, safe route to the destination, probably less-trafficked side streets; there’s an engagement component of reaching out to the community, other parents and the school administration; the most critical part is to have fun. For a May 8 recognition of the National Walk, Bike and Roll to School Day, the Peabody/RAUC bike bus was accompanied by members of School of Honk, who performed while rolling along. Vice mayor Marc McGovern spoke and rode with the group. Beaty said the caravan had more than 130 riders.

For this past Friday’s regular ride, which I attended, revered Boston institution Keytar Bear was supposed to join but was unable to make it because off traffic issues, promising to accompany a future date instead. This time there was approximately 40 riders, which Beaty said was typical; drop-off in the winter is not significant, she said, though some rides have to be canceled when there’s ice or heavy snow or rain.

The route that Beaty and Buck lead begins at Russell Field near the Alewife T station, with organizers first gathering riders from the Fresh Pond Apartments on Rindge Avenue. Beside parents who serve as ride marshals, there are volunteers from the Cambridge Bike Safety Group who help make sure intersections are safe to proceed through and block traffic as necessary. The right, safer route in this case includes Dudley and Reed streets, some of it parallel to the busier avenue where the school is. Students of all ages participate, with some riding with parents in e-assisted cargo bikes, some kicking along on balance bikes and others doing their own two-wheel propulsion. The communal joy of the activity is palpable, and an apt flourish to the end the week. Most people the bike bus passes cheer and wave, Beaty and another Bike Safety volunteer said. You can often see on the faces of onlookers the effect of a parade of second-graders gliding by.

The Peabody bike bus works only for the commute to school, not from, because of varying after-school schedules and one-way streets that prevent a calm and safe path back to Russell Field. Many parents bike their kids home on the sidewalk, or load their bicycles into their car or the hold of a cargo bike. Organizers are asking the city to designate certain streets as a Neighborway, as they are doing in Somerville.

Beaty said she would love to see more bike buses, but cannot be in two places at once – and she and Buck live close to Russell Field. Their children won’t be at Peabody forever, either, and Beaty, a Harvard library employee, will be on a research sabbatical in Rome next year. The hope is that others will step up. Given the group’s energy and levels of participation, that might not be a problem.