Babes in bikeland: Advice for cycling with kids
My daughter will turn 3 this year, and we just enrolled her in preschool. With all our childcare at home to date, we’ve been lucky to avoid lots of extra running around with the kid. So, no sooner had we signed little Audrey up for preschool than we began to fret about the logistics of getting her to and fro — without royally complicating our lives.
It’s a bit too far to walk, and since I try to commute as often as possible by bike, it seemed counterproductive to go the few miles by car. What would I do with the car? Drive back home and then hop on my bike? I don’t think so! Drive to work and pay to park downtown? No way!
So, I started to investigate my options for conveying my babe by bike — it appears to be the most convenient and sensible solution.
I asked other parents what works for them and for tips about equipment, safety, and getting started. I also asked for photos — and they flooded in, along with all kinds of inspiring insights about the joys of cycling with your kids!
No turning back
I have to admit that at first the idea of taking my small child by bike terrified me — partly because my own commute to downtown can be hairy. I also didn’t want to spend a fortune on gear (and since I’ve sworn off new stuff, I wouldn’t buy it new anyway). But talking with families who bike with kids has me convinced that it’s the way to go.
One woman told me, “It’s the best thing we’ve done for our family!”
From what I gather, you can do it safely (I won’t be riding in high-traffic areas) and fairly cheaply (used and borrowed equipment all the way!), and the payoff is health, family fun, special quality time out of your car, a deeper connection to your community, and a way to instill important values and attitudes in your kids that will last their lifetime.
And, if you think it’s too hard, or you’re not strong enough, or it’s inconvenient, all you need to do is read about this Portland mom who hauls six kids — yep, you heard me, SIX — on her one bike! (Sometimes she even takes along a neighbor kid too!) Whatever I do with my singleton will be easier than that!
Bike nurture and culture
I heard two things most often from biking families. First, they want to raise their kids outside of the prevailing car-only culture. Don’t get me wrong; these aren’t anti-car extremists. Not in the least! All these families own cars — and use them. But they feel it’s important for their kids to grow up knowing there are healthy, enjoyable, convenient, and environmentally friendly ways to get around without automatically defaulting to the car.
This father from Eugene, Ore., put it this way:
We bike 12 months a year, rain or shine. The most important part about getting to school this way is that our kids will grow up thinking that biking is a normal human activity, not something we do only during play time, or only on weekends. That’s how I grew up, and I’ve been riding ever since.
Here they are. Look at those big smiles!
Here are three generations biking together!
Top-notch quality time
The second thing I heard most often was that parents who pedal their kids around enjoy some amazing and unique quality time with them. When they’re riding together, the kids are usually jabbering away from their seat or trailer, keenly observing what they see (and what they smell, hear, sense, and feel) and talking with their mom or dad about it. Of course you could do this in a car too, but cycling parents feel like the connection is more powerful on a bike — between parent and child and between the child and his or her surroundings.
One dad told me that he preferred seats to trailers because “we get to talk about all the things we see along the way.”
Another parent agrees: “One of the great things about the front seat is we talk the whole time, pointing out the buses, other bikes, baseball stadiums, and garbage trucks.”
And here’s how this mom described the special quality of time on the bike:
I bike with my 2-year-old a lot. We started when he was about 10 months old, and we use an I-bert, which is one of those green seats that goes on the front of your bike. He loves it, and chatters and points at stuff constantly.
A Seattle dad said this: “I bike with my 2-year-old daughter onboard my bike. Every day we ride from Capitol Hill to downtown, where I drop her off at preschool before continuing on to my work in Columbia City. Our commute is the highlight of our day.”
A sense of place
Seeing things along the way isn’t just fun. Parents tell me that their kids are connecting with the community in new ways and getting to know the people, geography, and landmarks of their neighborhoods.
Research bears this out: Kids who are driven around in cars most of the time rather than walking or biking aren’t as likely to know their way around in their own neighborhoods — and they also feel less emotionally connected to their communities.
Think about it: Unlike traveling by car, when you’re on your bike you can easily stop and smell the roses (literally!) — or stop at a park, or a neighbor’s garden for a chat, or a food stand for a bite. Even when you’re zooming along you’re still going at a pace where you can take in sights and smells.
And the kids of die-hard parents get to experience their communities in all kinds of weather!
I must admit, some of those fancy long-tail set-ups and Euro-style (or imported) box rigs and cargo bikes are pretty alluring. If I were planning on biking more exclusively with my tot (or if I had more than one kid), I’d probably consider the investment. But for hilly Seattle commutes, I think my mantra will be to keep it simple (and as light as possible!).
The double kickstand should be standard issue (my bike doesn’t have one at all, making it difficult — but not impossible — to get the kid in her seat without another adult to help.)
Sun and rain shields, anyone?
A set-up where you can carry kids and stuff is essential for just about any biking mom or dad, though. Every parent knows that you don’t go anywhere with small children without plenty of provisions. And if you want to do your grocery shopping and other errands with kids in tow, a tough bike, solid wheels, and extra cargo space becomes even more important.
More than two kids? You probably need a special set-up!
Safety on wheels
Obviously, parents who bike with kids in tow need to be even more cautious than when they ride solo — your reflexes are the same but you just aren’t as agile. The bike rides differently when you’re hauling a trailer or balancing a 35-pound kid on the rear rack or handle bars.
Following the rules of the road, taking the route with a bike lane (or path), avoiding rush hour, and riding quieter streets seem sensible to me — especially as a newbie. Making sure your gear is intact and installed to the exact manufacturer’s specifications is a must.
And properly fitted helmets are a no-brainer (excuse the pun.)
A word to the wise: Dress in bright colors, use lights and reflectors, flags, and whatever else you can to be highly visible. A couple parents told me that car drivers are more cautious when they see that you have a kid on board.
One mom said that when she’s pulling the trailer, cars give her an extra-wide berth. Another dad told me, “It is also a great way of reducing any bike/car friction. Once people see [my son] up front, we’re usually smiled at.”
As Yes! magazine reported recently, “in 1969, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, 48 percent of kids aged 5 to 14 regularly walked or biked to school. In 2009, it was just 13 percent.” Getting kids on bikes early in life is probably one way to get a generation riding to school again. But, as Yes! points out, “a major reason for the [dwindling numbers] is that parents don’t feel safe letting their kids bike on their own.”
Here’s a cool safety idea for older kids: bike trains, “in which an adult chaperone rides a predetermined route, picking up children along the way.” This idea builds on the bike culture that so many parents with tots hope to instill early in their kids — health, community, stewardship:
Bike-to-school programs address large global issues from climate change to childhood obesity. With each group ride, children are empowered to take charge of their own transportation — they learn to be more confident cyclists, and that they don’t have to depend on cars to get around. They (and their parents) learn which of their classmates live nearby, making it easier to build networks for friendship and support.
And there’s a burgeoning bike train movement at several Seattle schools. (Is there one in your town? Let me know!)
As one mom pointed out to me, “there are lots of resources and a great community in Seattle for those who want to ride bikes with children. From the Seward Park Bike Sundays to local bloggers and organized kid rides, you will find the support you want!” She’s right. I unwittingly entered a welcoming, helpful, and enthusiastic world of bike parents when I started researching this post.
As for online resources, there are old standbys like Bike Portland and Seattle Bike Blog. In Seattle, there’s also Totcycle, an informative blog about all things biking-with-kids, especially having your kid on your bike — by a local pediatrician and his wife (parents of two).
There’s also Seattle’s bike blogger and bike-kid commuter, Davey Oil. He also works at Bike Works, a nonprofit bike shop and community-building organization that’s beginning to offer a whole suite of programs designed to encourage parents to go by bike. (Stay tuned).
There are community rides as well, like the monthly Kidical Mass — a “fun, safe, easygoing, and law-abiding family bike ride for kids of all ages.” Apparently it started in 2008 in Eugene, Ore., and has since spread to other places (including Seattle).
Seattle’s not alone. Check out this Sacramento, Calif., family’s biking blog, Tiny Helmets Big Bikes. They link to local activities for biking families. And I’m sure there are other community events and resources across Oregon, British Columbia, Idaho, and Washington. (Send me links if you know of any!)
Love at first bike
One major reason to bike en familia: Kids love it! One mom reported that her son “loved riding so much that he typically left his helmet on for hours after a ride!”
A father of twin boys described how it made the morning routine more fun for the kids:
Best benefit: No matter how crabby or aggravated anybody is when we leave the apartment, we’re all happy and having fun together by the time we roll up to the school.
And another parent told me, “[Our toddler] was really scared at first, then quickly loved biking. His very first crying fit — not related to sleep, food, or poop — was when we pulled him off of the bike for the first time; he had quickly become smitten.”
Plus, parents report that even when they’re riding as passengers, kids learn some skills that make it easier to transition to their own bikes. Here’s how blogger Kelly Hogaboom described it:
I really do think the kids not only learn to balance, but also learn a lot of cycling habits (good or bad). My daughter knew how to shoulder check and use arm signals etc. right away, the minute she started riding her own bike. Both kids were a wee bit wobbly but had mastered bike riding by the end of one day on their own, no training wheels.
And according to a biking parent with older kids, riding builds confidence. It’s a big deal “when a 6- or 7-year old discovers they can ride up a hill that adults walk their bikes up (they have superhuman power-to-weight ratios), or when a 5-year-old gets his training wheels off.” One of his kids is also “keenly interested in how his drivetrain works.” The other, whose balance and coordination used to be a source of concern for his teachers, “now prides himself in the length and lateral drift of his skids. It seems worth the extra $40/year for new tires.”
Like many of the parents I talked to, I want to instill an active way of life in my daughter (and a sense of freedom from cars). We definitely drive her around more often than not, but she’d prefer the bus any day. And since she could barely even talk she’s pointed at every cyclist we see and said “Mama!” (Which makes a bike-commuting mother’s heart swell with pride, as you can imagine!)
My toddler is terribly excited by the idea of riding with me.
Some good friends loaned us a rear rack seat that appears to be as skookum as they come. And the look on my daughter’s face when she saw the seat installed on my bike was about as joyous as I’ve ever seen. On our first test ride on the Fourth of July, she kept yelling, “Faster, Mama! Faster!”
We’ll be getting the hang of it on more leisurely rides this summer, and I can already tell that we’ll enjoy our bike commutes together when she starts preschool this fall.
Donate now to support our work.