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Episode 112: Climate Heroes - Biking in Spain

By Duolingo on Thu 16 Jun 2022

When primary school teacher Helena Vilardell’s students told her they wanted to ride their bikes to school, she came up with the idea of the “bicibús.” It quickly took off as a movement to take back the streets, helping create a cleaner environment and better future.

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Martina: It’s a foggy and cold morning in Vic, a city in northeastern Spain, and primary school teacher Helena Viladrell is getting ready for work. It’s the middle of the morning rush, and Helena and her daughter are about to head out on their bicycles. Helena pulls a neon vest over her head. She and her daughter both buckle their helmets and get ready to pedal, or pedalear.

Helena: Mi hija de ocho años y yo salimos de casa y pedaleamos hacia una plaza que queda cerca. Ella en su bicicleta y yo en la mía.

Martina: At the plaza, they’re met by a student from Helena’s 6th grade class. Another student bikes over and joins them. Then another, and another. Together, they set off toward their school, with Helena in the lead, guiding them on what they call a bicibús, or bike-bus.

Helena: Yo soy la adulta que conduce el bicibús. Normalmente, somos un grupo de diez personas y pedaleamos juntos hasta el colegio. Así podemos usar el espacio que necesitamos en la calle y montar la bici de forma segura. Tenemos nuestras rutas y paradas. Pero, para ir al colegio, tenemos que pasar por calles con mucho tráfico.

Martina: Helena, her daughter, and her students are not going very far, only pedaling some 800 meters — that’s around half a mile. But together, they’re taking the future of climate change into their own hands.

Helena: Somos muchos, así que podemos ir juntos por la calle, igual que los coches. Lo hacemos porque queremos darles libertad a los niños y niñas y, además, es bueno para la ciudad y el medioambiente. Queremos usar más la bicicleta para promover una respuesta a la emergencia climática.

Martina: Welcome, les damos la bienvenida to a special season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I’m Martina Castro. This season we’re bringing you the stories of true climate heroes… Everyday people in the Spanish-speaking world, who bring their communities together to take on climate change.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at

And a quick word on the Spanish you’ll hear in this episode. Our storyteller is from Spain, so the Z and, sometimes, the C, are pronounced like the “th” in the English word “think.” So words like “plaza” will sound like: “plaZa,” and “bicicleta” will sound like: “biZicleta.”

Martina: Helena lives in Vic, a city in Catalonia, one hour away from Barcelona, the capital city of the region.

Helena: Vic es una ciudad preparada solamente para coches. Como consecuencia, hay mucho tráfico y ruido. También llega mucha contaminación de Barcelona.

Martina: As a long-time resident, Helena knew the effect all of these cars were having on Vic. More cars mean more greenhouse gasses — and these gasses are the biggest contributors to climate change. The air pollution in Vic is often two times higher than the air quality guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.

Helena: Había demasiada contaminación y yo quería hacer algo para ayudar a la ciudad y al medioambiente, pero no sabía qué.

Martina: In 2015, Helena heard about a global initiative called “30-days-of-biking.” The challenge, or reto, is to ride your bike at least once a day during the month of April.

Helena: A mí me encanta la bicicleta. La usaba en la montaña y, a veces, también en la ciudad, pero no la usaba todos los días para ir de un lugar a otro. Entonces cuando vi este reto de treinta días en bici, dije: “¡Por supuesto!”.

Martina: Around this time in Vic, it wasn’t so common to see cyclists commuting. There weren't many bike lanes and the traffic was crazy. The cold, wet winter weather also made it harder to get around by bike. But with air pollution from cars contributing ​​three billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, Helena wanted to give biking a try.

Helena: Yo empecé a usar mi bicicleta para moverme por la ciudad y para ayudar al medioambiente.

Martina: Helena’s daughter was four at the time, so sometimes she’d ride in the attached child bike seat. Helena remembers the reactions she got while biking around the city that month.

Helena: Vic es una ciudad tradicional. Las personas nos miraban y decían: “¿Qué está haciendo en bicicleta con este frío?” o “¡Qué irresponsable con su hija tan pequeña en bici por la ciudad!”.

Martina: But the strange looks and judgemental comments didn’t stop Helena and her daughter from completing the challenge. In fact, she continued to ride her bike for months after the challenge ended because of the environmental benefits. She knew that even with her short commute, she could make a difference.

Helena: Hice el reto con mi hija y después lo adopté como hábito. Voy a todos lados en bicicleta, incluso a la escuela donde trabajo.

Martina: Helena spent the next three years commuting to school by bike, as a sustainable alternative, or alternativa sostenible, to driving. In 2018, the school where Helena works began encouraging the students to bring their bicycles on the days they had to go to swim classes. Instead of taking a bus to the local swimming pool, the students could ride their bikes there.

Helena: ¡A mí me encantó esa idea! Era una alternativa más sostenible y los estudiantes podían hacer ejercicio. Algunos alumnos ya sabían montar la bicicleta, pero otros no. Entonces aprender a hacerlo era necesario.

Martina: The sixth graders were given classes about bike safety and the rules of the road. But there was a problem. To get to school, some of the students who wanted to participate had to navigate one of the busiest streets in Vic…and they didn’t feel safe.

Helena: La ruta al colegio les daba miedo porque tenían que pasar por calles con mucho tráfico y era peligroso. Todavía no había calles solo para bicis y por supuesto, algunos padres tenían miedo de los coches.

Martina: So in February 2020, the students went to Helena to ask for advice. They said they’d seen her riding to school everyday and wanted to know how she did it.

Helena: Cuando hablé con ellos, vi que todos íbamos al mismo lugar. El problema era que íbamos separados y a horas diferentes. Entonces pensé que podíamos hacer un grupo para ir juntos y sentirnos más seguros en el camino.

Martina: Helena had heard about people in Italy and Portugal biking to school together in what they called a “bike-bus” group. So she volunteered to help the students have their own “bike-bus” — and given her biking experience, she agreed to lead them. Because she lived in a region of Spain with two official languages, Spanish and Catalán, she called the group “bicibús” in Spanish and “busbici” in Catalán.

Helena: El jueves por la noche estaba muy nerviosa porque todo tenía que estar perfecto. Escribí en una cinta de color negro “busbici”, que significa bicibús en catalán, y luego me la puse en la espalda.

Martina: On Friday morning, nine students and one other teacher gathered together on the square. As they rode along the street, Helena and her fellow teacher guided the students through the difficult parts of the route.

Helena: En el camino le enseñamos al grupo cómo señalar para cruzar y cómo andar por la calle de manera segura. Había dos carriles de coches para ir al colegio y nosotros usamos uno de ellos.

Martina: People inside the cars drove very slowly, looking at the group of kids on bikes taking up the other lane. Thankfully, they gave them their space and the kids made it to school safely. After getting off their bikes, some of the students told Helena they felt like superheroes, riding down the traffic filled streets.

Helena: Los niños estaban muy emocionados porque juntos no era peligroso. Y podíamos usar la bicicleta para desplazarnos sin hacer mucho ruido ni contaminar el medio ambiente. ¡Fue una experiencia única!

Martina: Whether inside or outside of the classroom, Helena made it a point to talk to students about the things they could do in their daily life to help the climate. For instance, choosing a mode of transportation that was quieter, healthier, and more sustainable, so that everyone could live in a less polluted world.

Helena: Me gusta mucho relacionar las cosas que estudiamos en la escuela con experiencias reales. A menudo hablo con mis alumnos sobre las cosas que pueden hacer para preservar el medio ambiente, y creo que ir en bicicleta ayuda muchísimo.

Martina: Helena’s students who made the choice to bike to school were learning to take action and commute without harming the environment. Helena loved that her students were motivated by climate concerns. But she also knew that for real environmental change, the bicibús movement would have to extend beyond her school community.

Helena: Después del primer día pensé: “¿Qué más podríamos hacer para desarrollar y compartir esta idea?”.

Martina: After the first bicibús in February 2020, Helena and her students rode to school together the next week, and the week after that. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Spain’s government imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world.

Helena: Durante este tiempo, cuando la ciudad estaba sin coches, sin contaminación y sin ruido, el aire estaba muy limpio. Se podía escuchar a los pájaros y pensé: “Si más gente usa su bicicleta, nuestra ciudad podría ser así siempre”.

Martina: So when the lockdown ended and school started again in September 2020, Helena decided to convince her entire community to make the environmentally friendly bicibús a regular part of the city’s daily commute.

Helena: Los niños volvieron al colegio con muchas más ganas de empezar con el bicibús. No solo ellos, los padres, los otros profesores… Todos estaban emocionados porque les gustó mucho el proyecto, pero también estaban esperando a ver qué iba a pasar en el futuro.

Martina: Helena believed bicibús could have an even bigger impact, so she teamed up with a friend and fellow bicycle enthusiast Eduard, to create a non-profit. To them, joining a bicibús was a small everyday choice that could start a bigger chain reaction. So they named the non-profit “Canvis en Cadena,” meaning “Change in Chain,” using the Spanish word for bicycle chain, cadena, and the Catalán word for change, canvis.

Helena: Canvis en Cadena se creó con el objetivo de apoyar el uso de la bicicleta para reducir el número de coches en Vic. De esta manera, buscamos darles libertad a los niños y reducir la contaminación en la ciudad.

Martina: Soon other schools in Vic started getting in touch to see how they could make their own bicibuses. Helena and Eduard decided to make a free e-learning platform to share everything they had learned. The training included information from how to work with school administrations, to pitching the idea to parents, and training kids about bike safety.

Helena: Para empezar, les recomendamos hacerlo un día a la semana y solamente para ir a la escuela. Entonces, en las tardes, hay muchas familias que van a recoger a los niños con la bici, en vez de usar el coche. Como resultado, hay más personas en bici por la ciudad.

Martina: Helena wanted to help anyone who wanted to start their own bicibús or join a route and understand how to do it safely, so she and Eduard launched an app that included all the information someone would need.

Helena: En la aplicación puedes ver las paradas, el horario y el mapa de la ruta del bicibús. Si eres padre o madre, puedes inscribir a tu hijo en una parada en un horario determinado. Si eres la persona responsable de un grupo, puedes ver a los participantes en la aplicación.

Martina: Helena and Eduard wanted bicibús to spread, but they noticed that not every community had the same type of needs. Some communities had large populations of cars and pedestrians to navigate, while others were more rural. So they decided to create different types of bicibuses to fit into different communities.

Helena: Muchos colegios escucharon hablar del proyecto y querían empezar sus propios bicibuses. Pero para tener éxito, teníamos que adaptar el bicibús a cada comunidad.

Martina: As the project expanded to Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, it became obvious that they would face bigger challenges. Barcelona is a huge city with a lot of traffic. So having a bicibús presence there could have a valuable impact on the environment. But the brave students on their bikes would need all the help they could get.

Helena: Barcelona es la segunda ciudad más grande de España y es una de las más contaminadas del país, por eso, necesitaban más apoyo con los bicibuses.

Martina: So local schools and communities in Barcelona enlisted the support of Helena’s non-profit…and the help of the local police. Together, they closed the streets down to cars and blasted music, while kids and volunteers biked down the middle of the emptied city streets.

Helena: Ellos cerraron las calles de Barcelona, ¡y fue increíble! Pero todavía queríamos hacer más. La idea es empezar nuevos bicibuses en otros colegios de la ciudad. Nuestro objetivo para el 2030 es hacer que mil doscientos niños en Cataluña usen la bicicleta para ir al colegio.

Martina: In early 2022, Helena started to see the larger impact Canvis en Cadena was having on the country at large.

Helena: Gracias a nuestra aplicación, notamos el efecto de nuestro proyecto. Por ejemplo, veíamos cuántos coches dejaban de circular cuando circulaba el bicibús.

Martina: In the region of Catalonia, she counted more than 52 schools participating in the bicibús initiative, meaning more than 400 students were biking to school and approximately 170 fewer cars were on the roads. And thanks to Helena and her group, the students in Vic finally had their own dedicated bike lane.

Helena: La ciudad creó una vía de una calle para las bicis para llegar a una zona donde hay varios colegios. ¡Fue un gran éxito para nosotros! El bicibús es un medio de educación tanto para los niños como para los adultos que usan coches porque ahora las personas ven muchas bicis en la ciudad. Además, la protección del medio ambiente es urgente, y el bicibús es un proyecto que nos permite vivir mejor.

Martina: Helena Vilardell is a primary school teacher in Vic, where she lives with her three children. Today thanks to Helena’s efforts, more people are also choosing to have their own kind of bicibús in cities like Frankfurt and San Francisco. She hopes the movement keeps growing and gets more financial support, so they can reach even more cities and more schools to help them start their own bicibuses.

This story was produced by Gabriela Saldivia, a journalist and teacher based in Sevilla, Spain.

We would love to know what climate story inspired you this season. You can write us an email at and call and leave us a voicemail or audio message on WhatsApp, at +1-703-953-93-69. Don’t forget to say your name and where you’re from! Here’s a message we recently got from Tiffany, Cody, and Ryan:

Duolingo Podcast Listeners: Hi, it's Tiffany and Cody and Ryan and we're from [name] High School. We just finished listening to your podcast for our Spanish class. And it was really inspiring. It made me appreciate 100% natural ingredient chocolate a lot more. The cacao industry in Costa Rica is something that I've never once discovered before and, then, now with this podcast it's truly influential in my knowledge. So we really wanted to thank you for the podcast. Bye!

Martina: Oh! Thank you Tiffany, Cody, and Ryan for your message! It’s so great to know that our podcast helped you in your Spanish learning journey and keep enjoying that natural chocolate.

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The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!


This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Gabriela Saldivia
Narrator & Protagonist: Helena Vilardell
Editor: Catalina May
Managing Editor: David Alandete
Supervising Sound Designer, Mixing & Mastering: Antonio Romero
Production Manager: Román Frontini
Assistant Producer: Andy Fechtenholz
Sound Design & Audio Editor: Mauricio Mendoza
Executive Producer/Host: Martina Castro