Babes on Bikes

A photo essay on bicycling with small children in tow.

My daughter will turn three 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!

Father and two kids with a handlebar seat and a trail-a-bike!

Father and two kids with a handlebar seat and a trail-a-bike! Used with permission.

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.

Jason and Orion. Ready to go.

Jason and Orion. Ready to go. Used with permission.

As the folks at Totcycles, a local family biking blog (and marvelous resource), pointed out, “this Madsen packs more kids than most SUVs!”

This father from Eugene, OR, put it this way:

We bike twelve 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!

Dad and two small kids on their bike commute to school.

Chris, Elena, and Sylvan, Used with permission.

Here are three generations biking together!

A biking family---three generations!

A biking family—three generations! Used with permission.

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.

Papa and tot on wheels!

Papa and tot on wheels! Photo used with permission.

One dad told me that he preferred seats to trailers because, “we get to talk about all the things we see along the way.”

Long distance ride with a three year-old!

A three year old and her papa on the Iron Horse Trail. She is on a Bike Tutor. Photo: Mollie Brown Huppert.

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 two 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.

Clive and the mighty Ibert seat—and his mighty mom. Photo used with family’s permission.

Clive in a handle-bar seat with his dad.

The family commute. Photo used with permission.

A Seattle dad said this: “I bike with my 2 year old daughter on board my bike. Every day we ride from Capitol Hill to Downtown, where I drop her off at preschool before continuing to 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.

Mom biking with two small boys (5 and 2 years old).

Madi Carlson and sons Brandt (5 years old) and Rijder (2 years old). Used with permission.

And the kids of die-hard parents get to experience their communities in all kinds of weather!

Madi Carlson and sons Brandt (5 years old) and Rijder (2 years old). Riding in the snow!

Madi Carlson and sons Brandt (5 years old) and Rijder (2 years old). Riding in the snow! Used with permission.

Gearing Up

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!).

Here are some fancy set-ups to drool over, however.

The double kick-stand 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!

A long-tail cargo bike set-up for schlepping kids!

A long-tail cargo bike set-up for schlepping kids! Used with permission.

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 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.”

A little boy in a rear rack bike seat.

Used with permission.

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!)

Community Resources

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.

Biking with baby in Walla Walla.

Biking with baby in Walla Walla. Used with permission.

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).

Edie in her Burley. Photo used with family’s permission.

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).

Edie in her Burley. Photo used with family’s permission.

There are community rides as well, like the monthly, Kidical Mass—a “fun, safe, easy-going, and law-abiding family bike ride for kids of all ages.” Apparently it started in 2008 in Eugene, Oregon, and has since spread to other places (including Seattle).

Burke-Gilman trail, Seattle. Photo used by permission.

Seattle’s not alone. Check out this Sacremento, CA, 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, BC, Idaho, and Washington. (Send me links if you know of any!)

Love at First Bike

One major reason to bike “en famillia”: 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!”

Twins in a bike trailer.

Twins in a bike trailer. Used with permission.

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.

Start 'em young! Chuck and Ace are ready to go for a bike ride.

Start ‘em young! Chuck and Ace are ready to go. Used with permission.

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.”

A very happy child cyclist!

A very happy child cyclist at Earthworks tour ride in Kent. Used with permission.

Street Smarts

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 six- or seven-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 five-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.)”

Phoenix and Nels Hogaboom---kids at home on the bike.

Phoenix and Nels Hogaboom—at home on the bike. Used with permission.

Ready to Roll!

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 4th 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.

The author and her daughter Audrey in the rear rack bike seat.

The author and Audrey on our first ride. Photo by Gustav Moore.

Thank you to everyone who submitted photos, insights, community resources, and advice—keep it all coming, I’ll do a part II. Thanks to the awesome exchange of ideas, support, and gently used stuff at the Madrona Moms and Capitol Hill Parents listservs! (I just saw a post about a gently used handle-bar seat—a green I-bert—for sale in Madrona for $50!)

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Comments

  1. Tasha says:

    Great article! I love that family biking is becoming such a normal thing, and it was awesome to see so many familiar faces and bikes as I read.

    I wanted to share also that Seattle has a thriving online community called Seattle Family Biking (http://www.facebook.com/groups/seattlefamilybiking) where we do a lot of chit-chatting and meet-up organizing. I hope anyone who’s local and reading this will stop on by!

    Ride on. :)

    • Eric Hess says:

      Thanks, Tasha. Great research! We linked it on our Facebook page. http://www.facebook.com/SightlineInstitute

    • Michael says:

      The pics show quite a lot of interesting ways to carry your child :-). Taking my daughter to kindergarten by bike was a good way to make her sensitive to 2-wheel-speed, every day she was keen on the “stairs” we went downhill. Now, three years later, she starts her own rides in the alps, still fascinated by biking.

  2. Ben says:

    1. What’s the timeline on starting to cycle with kids? I notice some pretty young ones in the photos.
    2. Is there any crash plan? Like how to fall or something?
    3. In the picture of Anastasia under the text about properly fitted helmets her helmet isn’t properly fitted. It’s tilted back too far.

    • Lisa C says:

      There’s no set timeline for biking with kids. For us it was as soon as our son was big enough to fit a helmet, which is required in BC. He was 10 months old then, but he has a big head! In Amsterdam few people wear helmets & it’s not unusual to see a tiny baby strapped into their car seat in the box of a bakfiets or Christiania-style trike.

      Great article–I love the collection of photos! I’ll be linking to this on my blog & FB page https://www.facebook.com/TheSprog

  3. Davey Oil says:

    This is a great article. My Little and I ride daily and it really is a key part of our life together. Riding with kids really is becoming more normal and accepted and it should be.

    I’d love to point you to two other resources:
    local bike blog, the Main Tank just started a series on getting started biking with kids and it is great!
    http://www.themaintank.com/?p=157

    On Sunday, July 29th, Bike Works will be offering a three hour seminar on Family Biking with Bike Works teacher and champion cargo biking mom, Morgan!

    http://bikeworks.org/adult_familybike.php

    See you out there on the road!
    Davey Oil

  4. Erin says:

    Any good forums out there to ask questions of other family bikers? I’m a carless mom with a 3.5 and 1.5 year old (currently in a bike trailer), and am wondering what my best next step is to keep transporting them on a bike. Most of the generic articles don’t help me, since they cover neither ice/snow conditions, gravel roads, or long steep hills.

  5. Kate says:

    Great article and good luck with your new plan! I LOVE riding with my kids.

  6. Ash Shepherd says:

    This is a great post full of lots of insigtful content and information. A wonderful example of content “by the community for the community.” The crowd sourced images were such a nice part as well.

  7. iBikeuBike says:

    Certainly a great primer for parents and caregivers looking to begin commuting with their kids. My hackles did rise a little at the passage: “Don’t get me wrong; these aren’t anti-car extremists. Not in the least! All these families own cars—and use them” as a car-free family of five we do not consider ourselves “anti-car extremists” Our family is very norma we just get where we need to get without a car…and yeah, we too have discovered we love our bikes along the way.

    I think it is important that families have options that suit a variety of needs. For us living car free meant saving allot of money (12K a year with fuel/ insurance/ maintenance). With lower income families spending a whopping 42% of their income on cars we need to remove obstacles from alternate forms of translortation. Removing stereotypes is one way to pave the way.
    Ofherwise great posting (sorry for ranting)! Thanks for such beautiful photos and tips :)
    iBikeuBike.com

  8. Mari Lynch - Bicycling Monterey says:

    Thank you for these lovely photos. A link has been added on the Bicycling Monterey website. It’s under the “Children and Teens” subheader in the “CA Bike Laws and Personal Safety–with Tips for Kids” section of the Tips for Bicycling Monterey County guide.

    Thanks for inspiring more parents to bike with their children.

  9. TVDinner says:

    I kick it old school and my two-year-old rides in a trailer. While we don’t have the kind of interaction that we’d have if she were up on the bike with me (sigh), she really, really loves that trailer. Like one of the parents in the story related, she also is reticent to take off her helmet when we get back.

    I think for her the trailer is her own private space from which she can see the world. She pats the trailer when I pull it out of the garage and says, “Mi bici!” (we speak Spanish at home, so that means “my bike”) over and over.

    Pro tip: when we sprang for a trailer, someone told me to get the one for two kids. It was terrific advice. I can haul a week’s worth of groceries home with my daughter perched in the middle of them, although I do have to make sure the fruit is in the back where she can’t take a bite out of every piece of it before we get home.

  10. Anna Fahey says:

    The best stuff always happens in the comments. Thanks to everyone who shared tips and resources here. I just joined a couple new family biking Facebook groups myself!

    And thanks to iBikeuBike. I applaud families who go carless. Our director, Alan Durning, has done it for years (even with three young kids). I don’t have any particular affinity for cars. But I’m locked into the car way of life like most Americans. Hopefully, following the lead of pioneering families like you, our next generation will have an entirely different relationship with cars (and it seems to be starting already). At least that’s the idea for many of these biking parents! And you make the point clearly too: It’s a perfectly normal thing to do! Hopefully all these photos of beautiful, healthy, smart people help illustrate that too.

    Happy pedaling!!

  11. Charlie Greenwood says:

    Way back in 1967 I got involved with the local bicycle racing team in Spokane and on some of our rides this couple would bring their child along papoose style.

  12. shellyqb says:

    I love the pictures! And I, too, love commuting by bike with my kids. They are 8 and 10 now. Last Saturday, we were debating what to do. They wanted to go to Target to spend money they earned. “No way.” My 8 year old knows how to change my mind, “We could bike there!” We had a great time: 10 miles round trip, 2 new toys, 2 snack stops and about 3 hours later, we had both gotten what we wanted. For me, spending time out side with my boys (getting exercise too!) and their trip to Target.

  13. Anna Fahey says:

    FYI. Totcycle has posted a schedule of family bike events for Seattle.

  14. DayLily says:

    Bicycling is a good experience for family bonding! When I was 6 years old, my mom and stepdad married. Soon after that, we moved from a small Mid-Western city to a huge city on the West Coast. In the new city, my stepdad taught me how to ride a bike that he got me for Christmas. We had a fun time exploring the park near our home on our bikes! That wonderful experience made the new city a great place to be and my new dad a great addition to the family!

  15. Paul Oehlmann says:

    Hi Anna,

    Thank you for writing this article!!!
    I avidly ride my kids to school and promote the use of bicycles as a viable means of transport. I agree with one of the contributors, that the ride to/from school is one of the highlights of the day.
    I enjoyed looking at the many different set ups that families have to get themselves around. The most enjoyable photo is the one of Mum & trailer riding in the snow… now that’s commitment!

    I was sent a link to this article by a bicycle advocacy group as I want to start a school bike bus, where adult volunteers ride with kids to primary/elementary school to ensure they ride to school safely and keep the school traffic area relatively car free. Do you know of any such groups in the US as here in Australia there aren’t many groups of that nature? I ask as you may have come across these groups in your research for this article possibly?

    Many thanks

  16. raj says:

    Awesome

  17. Rizwan Ullah says:

    what is price

  18. rakesh kothari says:

    hi

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