Barcelona Bike Bus Summit
Getting together with the global bike bus family in Barcelona at the end of last month was moving and affirming. Real-life connections, shared learning, and collective support for each other was something that will sit with us for a long time. Recognising our differences, but crucially finding the commonalities and discussing how to break down barriers and scale bike buses was incredibly useful. We collectively wrote and signed the "Barcelona Declaration" which we've copied at the end, but first, here’s our five big take homes from the summit.
Bike Bus is protest
In Barcelona every bicibus is registered as a protest to enable the riders to get police protection to keep them safe. To us this is one part crazy (we’re just trying to ride our kids to school!) and one part inspiring. The effort that goes into organising this for the greater good is immense and the bicibus leaders should be commended for their tireless action. In Glasgow, we’re a bit less ‘punk’ than our Barca sisters and brothers, but we’re protesting in our own, perhaps a bit more deferential (or Scottish) way. Sure, we work closely with the authorities, and the council, councillors, national politicians, school and community police have all been supportive, but we’ve been doing this for 18 months now and whilst we’ve had some success in changing things (the button!) we still largely face the same problems as when we started. Maybe we need to be a bit more punk in Shawlands?
Sustainability is fragile
Sam (Coach) Balto from Portland has a mantra: “volunteerism is inequitable and unsustainable”, and we fully agree. Taking the second part of that mantra first, there are a few issues here. Firstly, anything volunteer-led and that relies on goodwill can suffer from volunteer fatigue. This, in part, is controlled by seeing the impact you are, or are not, having. Seeing 50+ kids cycle to school (or hundreds in Barcelona) is rewarding on a weekly basis and keeps us going. We’ve also written before about the weekly dose of joy and community you get from participating in a bike bus that is certainly nothing to be sniffed at. But running a bike bus needs considerable ‘behind the scenes’ effort and sometimes the absence of bigger changes/impacts can be a downer. In Barcelona you can sense the frustration that nothing has changed to improve safety for kids to cycle to school since the bicibus started. The Barcelona leaders told us somewhat sarcastically that the only change they’d seen is that there are stickers on some police cars saying they support the bicibus. We share this frustration. Progress can be slow and meanwhile people are being killed. Losing Emma Newman earlier this year, cycling in Glasgow, was a body blow to us. Of course that must be a thousand times harder for her friends and family, and we won’t forget the raw grief on display at her vigil. Given this, it’s easy to see people starting to give up, lose patience and get off their bikes. And if they do this, what happens to the bike buses run mostly by volunteers? Secondly, people move, kids grow up, teachers switch schools. Diversity in ownership and leadership of bike buses is important and guaranteeing the long-term sustainability of a volunteer run bike bus is not easy. Thirdly, it’s worth seeing the current bike bus movement in an historical context. Gemma and Jordi from UAB showed the current growth of the number of bike buses is huge and potentially historically unique. This may have been fueled by the ability to connect online and the fact we’ve just come home from the first (as far as we’re aware) Global Bike Bus Summit facilitated by online connections is testament to this. And we know there are more bike buses out there who did not join in Barcelona. But looking back there are examples of short-lived bike buses going back at least 25 years. We’ve found examples from Belgium in 1998, Sydney in 2007 another from Yorkshire in 2008, and even at Alameda Elementary in 2011, the home to the now viral Coach Balto led bike bus. Why did they not sustain? Did they achieve their aims? Or did they suffer from participant or volunteer fatigue? What support did they have? We’ll come back to how you might tackle sustainability shortly…
Equality, diversity and inclusion is key
Back to Sam’s mantra - specifically the first bit - volunteerism is inequitable. There is no doubt that the Shawlands Bike Bus has a lot of privilege. And perhaps there was a little bit of magic/serendipity/luck too. We started our bike bus off the back-end of a pandemic in a predominantly middle-class community. We were, and are, fortunate that many parents of the bike bus can work flexibly, and often from home, in ways that might not have been possible pre-pandemic and in other less affluent communities. This means we are able to cycle our kids to school and still meet our work commitments. Others do not have this luxury. We recognise this privilege and are working on ways we can become more inclusive and diverse in Shawlands. We were unsurprised to see this is an issue in other bike buses too. As a bike bus community we need to work hard to break down these barriers as best we can. There is an important link here to another thing we found in common with other bike bus organisers, that we love to ride the bike bus but perhaps see them as temporary. Significant physical changes to our urban spaces that prioritise people over cars (bike lanes, reducing traffic volumes and speeds, less space used up for driving and parking, etc.) would mean many more people could have the freedom and joy of getting to school by bike. You wouldn’t need a bike bus to do it. You might still do it because it’s fun, but it wouldn’t require so much volunteer time and effort, hopefully making it more equitable and sustainable.
Where we go next
Tackling sustainability and equality are the big ticket items for us. In Barcelona there was a discussion on how best to tackle sustainability. Some advocate for an institutionalisation of bike buses to provide funding and paid leadership. Others argued that by doing so you’d lose the grassroots/community ownership that has spurred on and, currently at least, sustained so many bike buses. We don’t have the answer yet, there’s more work to be done here, but the reality is that there probably needs to be a bit of both and recognition that different models will be more or less suited to different communities. What we think we all agree on is that there needs to be more shared ownership of bike buses, from parents, teachers, schools, and authorities. On equality, again, there was a big discussion with lots of ideas to help: funding for bikes and safety equipment, more/better secure storage facilities, lessons for children AND adults, outreach campaigns, paid bike bus ‘drivers’ able to take unaccompanied children, new/better insurance etc etc. There’s no one-size fits all solution here. Each bike bus and each community will have different needs that solutions need to be tailored for, but it is clear that a) these barriers are more than likely not insurmountable and b) need dedicated time and resources to overcome.
Bike bus is community and joy
Our last take home is that bike bus is more than just cycling to school. Being able to connect in person with so many bike bus leaders was truly enriching and affirming. It’s something else when you can jump straight into the deep-end of a conversation about some of the issues above with someone in the room you’ve not met before, at close to midnight, in different languages, because they just get it. They’re your people. It’s also great to know you’re not alone in tackling some of these issues. And there was such a warmness in the room, on the bicibus and in the city to our participation that we can’t help but smile to think about it. People organised free bikes for bike bus participants, volunteers showed us round their city on sometimes hair-raising cycle rides (thanks Mireia! ;), institutes supported our visit with meeting space and time. And bike bus is fun too. Rob from Worcester told us about a game he plays sometimes with his bike bus called “ding my bell” (not like that) involving him sat on his bike having water pistols, being blindfolded and kids trying to creep up to ring his bike bell without getting squirted. Fun! Joy! Maybe Mireia summed it up best, we’re not activists for cycling, we’re activists for happiness. Bike bus is about community and place building, it’s about environmentalism, it’s about health, it’s about education, active transportation, more livable communities and more. We have to not lose this, it’s why people keep coming back.
We leave Barcelona with full hearts and with a renewed determination to make change, to grow the bike bus movement, to get more kids safely to school on their bikes and ultimately to make the streets a bit safer and a bit nicer for everyone.
The Shawlands Bike Bus Barcelona team:
Gareth, Camille, Jo, Katherine, Mark, Sean and Will.
The Barcelona Declaration
“Bike bus is joy and freedom. Community bike rides to school make kids happier, more awake and ready to learn. Our community becomes more connected and resilient. We demonstrate that our streets can be for children too. As a bike bus community, we demand that our political leaders prioritise urban space and resources for child friendly, healthy and safer streets.”