Several members of the Wesley Primary School bike train in their matching high-vis vests.
The Wesley Primary School bike train (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyAugust 17, 2023

Getting kids on their bikes and off to school

Several members of the Wesley Primary School bike train in their matching high-vis vests.
The Wesley Primary School bike train (Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller)

While it was once a common sight, biking to school has become increasingly rare in Aotearoa. Tommy de Silva meets the people working to change that through a simple but effective initiative, and tags along on an Auckland bike train.

After school one drizzly, grey Auckland afternoon recently, I joined pupils from Wesley Primary, in the Auckland suburb of Mount Roskill, on their bike ride home. When it’s raining, I usually swap my bike for the train, but the kids were unfazed – so I rustled up some childlike exuberance as they donned their matching high-vis vests and KidsCan rain jackets.

These days, New Zealand children biking to school is rare – in 2014 only 2% did it, compared to 12% as recently as 1990. According to a 2022 global study, 55% of tamariki in Aotearoa travel to school by car.

But there’s an initiative that’s helping kids to buck that trend – the bike train. Essentially walking school buses for bicycles, bike trains have adult supervisors who train children to safely cycle to school and escort them on their journey. Ultimately, the goal is to teach the necessary safety skills to the point where kids can independently travel to and from school. Being on wheels allows bike trains to cover more ground than traditional walking school buses can. 

Leora Karon and the Wesley Primary bike train.
Some members of the Wesley Primary bike train. (Photo: Supplied)

Leora Karon, who runs Wesley Primary’s bike train, tries to recruit kids who can’t easily walk to school and whose parents don’t have time to ride with them. One of the aims is to reduce congestion and transport emissions around the school, she says. The school’s bike train is propped up by Auckland Transport’s Ngā Tiriti Ngangahau/Vibrant Streets programme (a $3 million fund delivered by AT over the first three years of Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland Council’s 10-year climate action package). When I cycled with Wesley’s bike train, the tamariki led me on a route past parks and along wide-bermed, quiet residential streets. The oldest kid, Leroy, was new to the bike train – Karon only taught him to ride last term – so two young sisters took the lead. At each crossing, they dismounted, checked for cars and only crossed after quadruple-checking it was safe, a trick Karon taught them.

Leora Karon.
Leora Karon (Photo: Supplied)

When the tamariki arrived home, they waved us goodbye with big grins – their mood unaffected by the drizzle – as we cycled onward. Although it only started last term, the bike train has been popular, quickly doubling in size to 14 kids on an average day out of a roll of 170. “We went from no kids cycling to just under 10% of kids riding to school,” Karon says. She admits it took hand-holding and shepherding to get here, but she wanted to ensure the bike train would endure without her. Last term, she rode with the first cohort, teaching them how to safely cycle. After a term of safety training, the tamariki now safely ride independently – Karon’s safety tricks made Wesley Primary’s bike train sustainable and enduring. But the relatively good (by New Zealand standards) bike infrastructure near the school also helped. 

Richard Barter was the local board chairperson who installed the infrastructure that made his neighbourhood safe for kids to cycle. Bike lanes are a hard sell for any New Zealand politician, but Barter identified that most opposition to cycleways comes from removing car infrastructure. Barter laid out Roskill’s bike network without aggravating drivers by constructing shared paths along wide-bermed roads – to not remove car parks – and installing greenways through parks. By “not taking up roads and carparks, we could create infrastructure without a lot of pushback from the community”, Barter explains. The southwestern motorway shared path “created a spine in the network. Oakley Creek has a series of reserves, and we have a number of other natural assets which created the opportunity to put paths in”, he elaborates.

Richard Barter fixes bikes at Wesley Primary School.
Richard Barter fixes bikes at Wesley Primary School (Image: supplied)

Because the school neighbours Oakley Creek, Wesley Primary’s bike train can make use of the safe cycleways Barter championed. He commends Karon for getting Wesley’s bike train rolling, explaining that she “changed the way young people, parents and school staff think about riding bicycles”. One reason Karon’s bike train rides along Barter’s off-road paths is because she is keen to prevent issues at driveways, which are particularly dangerous for children cycling – as parents in the Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier discovered the hard way. 

In 2019, about half a dozen Point Chevalier kids were hit by cars exiting driveways. Afterwards, 100 local tamariki delivered driveway safety flyers to 3,500 homes, and since then, safety has improved. But local parent Matt Fordham explains the campaign wouldn’t have succeeded without the bike train community behind it. Founded by Fordham seven years ago, Point Chevalier Primary’s bike train is the shining example other schools emulate. Although Karon modelled Wesley’s bike train off Fordham’s, there is a stark infrastructure difference between the two areas. Whereas Wesley Primary benefits from Roskill’s off-road, shared paths, Point Chevalier students must cycle solely on the footpath because cycleways are nonexistent in their suburb. Nonetheless, the suburb’s percentage of kids biking to school is much higher than the rest of Auckland, 8.3% in Point Chevalier east and 14% in Point Chevalier west, compared to a citywide average of 1.5%.

Matt Fordham and his family.
Matt Fordham and his family in 2018. (Photo: Auckland Council)

Without Point Chevalier’s bike train, there are “no safe ways for kids to bike to school”, Fordham explains. The bike train provides tamariki with in-depth safety training since their area lacks cycling infrastructure. Parents teach kids to share footpaths “with old ladies, people with dogs and wheelchair users”, he says. Over seven years, the bike train has become a community staple, and locals now expect to see kids cycling dressed in their high-vis. Like Wesley, Point Chevalier’s bike train rides rain or shine: “It doesn’t matter the weather. It was going this morning through hail!” Fordham says.

Some pupils do 1,000-plus rides, after which “they know the local streets better than their parents. They are some of the most aware cyclists in the city”. Through those many rides, tamariki gain new friends. Kids who used to be a drag to get into the car for school now race out the door to not miss a ride with their mates, Fordham explains. (Similarly, at Wesley Primary, staff correlated several pupils’ attendance improving to them joining the bike train). There are six families in Fordham’s block that his whānau met through the bike train, and all their similarly aged kids have become friends through the initiative. “The community depth it gives you is wicked,” he says. Parents also benefit by joining a caring, supportive network who lean on each other for support. 

Examples of micro-mobility in Point Chevalier, including kids and parents being forced to illegally bike on the footpath.
Photos of locals getting around Point Chevalier, including the bike train. (Image: Supplied)

They look after each other’s kids and take pressure off one another by taking turns chaperoning the bike train to and from school. “If you can get a couple of parents to take dozens of kids to school, you free up dozens of other parents,” Fordham explains. Currently, he is only rostered once weekly, which he says “saves me so much time, having multiple days a week I don’t have to take my kids to school”. He notes that parents who drive their kids to school are more likely to make other trips by car, which consequently motivates their kids to drive once they can – even though getting behind the wheel of a gas guzzler worsens the climate crisis. 

Still proudly wearing their bike train high-vis gear, “graduates who are now year seven and eight have taken cycling advocacy into intermediate school and will take it to high school. They feel empowered because they are actually doing something about it [the climate crisis],” says Fordham. Karon hopes that will happen with Wesley’s students too. She says her bike train mahi came from the perspective of reducing carbon emissions. “You can spend a lot of money trying to change the behaviour of a 40-year-old, but kids already want to be active and outdoors,” Fordham explains, adding that, after all, “these kids are the ones we expect to live a carbon zero lifestyle in 2050.”

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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