PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The people behind the bike bus at Portland’s Alameda Elementary School are peddling a bill to lawmakers in the 2023 session that would allow schools to flexibly use existing funding to support other transit options besides school buses.
Advocates would like to see more transportation money put toward things like public transit, crossing guards and walking and biking groups.
House Bill 3014, or the “Bike Bus Bill,” would direct the Oregon State Board of Education to adopt rules that allow school districts to receive reimbursements for various means of transporting students to school, outside of traditional school bus transit. Currently, the only transportation option schools can receive reimbursement for is school bus service.
“Under this proposal, districts won’t be entitled to any additional funding; they just won’t lose money by using bus alternatives,” Rep. Khanh Pham, a Democrat from Portland who is one of the chief sponsors of the bill, said at a House Committee on Education hearing on Feb. 20.
She and her co-sponsor, Democratic Rep. Hoa Nguyen from Southeast Portland and Damascus, opened the public comment period at the hearing.
Nguyen spent nearly a decade as a school attendance coach with Portland Public Schools. She said one of the greatest barriers to student success in school is access to transportation.
Currently, school districts are struggling to fill bus driver positions. Like many employers, they’re facing a workforce shortage and when there isn’t a bus driver available for a route, routes can be canceled.
For students who don’t live along a safe walking path or whose parents can’t drive them to school, this might result in their absence from school.
While Nguyen worked for Portland Public Schools, she helped organize a “walking school bus” to address students’ absenteeism at Jason Lee Elementary School. The walking school bus would follow a route to school, going home to home to pick up students and allow them to walk together with supervising adults to school.
“During our walking routes, we learned about the community our students lived in and the challenges they had getting to school. Some of the students in Jason Lee Elementary School lived in motels along 82nd Avenue. Their parents were focused on survival and could not always make sure the kids got to school,” Nguyen said at the hearing.
Pham and Nguyen believe HB 3014 would benefit both schools and students, by helping provide more transportation options in the face of a bus driver shortage and by helping ensure students can attend school.
In Portland, alternative transit options have been growing in popularity thanks to inspiration from Alameda Elementary School PE teacher Sam Balto.
On Earth Day 2021, Balto started leading a bike bus for students at the school. In 2022, the bike bus had become so popular that Balto told KOIN 6 News he had between 130 and 170 kids riding along.
The bike bus only operates on Wednesday mornings. Students from the school gather at two locations, one about 1.5 miles from the school and the other about 1.25 miles. The two groups meet up and together they pedal to school – rain or shine.
In fall 2022, Balto said he’d like to expand the bike bus beyond once a week, but said it was difficult to do because he’s relying on adult volunteers to help him supervise the children.
Dressed in his helmet and bright yellow jacket, Balto attended the hearing on HB 3014 to speak in favor of the bill.
“Walking school bus mornings and bike bus mornings are different. Our students arrive happier, more joyful and more excited to start school,” he said.
He said there is tremendous, unmet demand for alternative school transportation and said these initiatives have transformed the school experience for students and their families.
One of Balto’s fifth grade students also attended the hearing and said she supports HB 3014 for three reasons: exercise, the environment, and because alternative transportation is fun.
“We need to pass House Bill 3014 because children need safe, alternative ways to get to school, including safe bike routes, chaperoned buses as well as walking groups,” she said.
Already dozens of pieces of written testimony have been submitted to the Oregon State Legislature regarding HB 3014, the overwhelming majority of them support the bill.
As of Wednesday, March 1, 2023, there were no upcoming scheduled meetings planned to further discuss the bill.