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On Biking: what to make of parents who bike with their kids aboard?

Posted by Your Town  July 16, 2010 04:22 AM

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The streets of every town have their own character, but depending on local road conditions it can seem outright crazy to pedal on the streets of Greater Boston.

Certainly we have seen recently that riding in the heart of the city—where taxis, buses and trucks all pose threats—can be dangerous. But taking to the quieter side streets in Boston's suburbs are some parents who have found ways to feel safe riding even with their most precious cargo attached.

It’s fairly commonplace in Northern Europe to see toddlers and older kids as passengers on their parent’s bikes on the way to school, but it’s a rare sight here. So what makes a parent decide to ride with their kids and how do they do it safely?

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After interviewing several parents who have toted children around by bike from toddler age forward, I've found the primary motivations seem to be health, enjoyment, and teaching their kids to love bikes as much as they do. And unsurprisingly in this digital age, it’s all compelling enough to blog about. Many bicyclists here have their own, but point to totcycle.com of Seattle as the best of the bunch.

"There’s just so many positive aspects of cycling, I just wouldn’t want to miss out on those,” said Andrew Conway of Newton Arlington, a father of three two young girls who also blogs at andrewbikes.blogspot.com. “And I’ve got complete control of my kids when we go out.”

“You’re outside, and your body’s moving, and you can get something for yourself out of it when you’re doing something as mundane as going to the CVS,” said Vanessa Allen in Newtonville, who carts 4-year-old Toby, and 6-year-old Gigi around. She talked about biking with kids recently on her blog at suburbanbikemama.blogspot.com.

Both Conway and Allen take it to the limit as far as the proper equipment is concerned. Allen rides what is called a Sorte Jernhest and Conway sports a Christiana. Both are Danish-made tricycles with two wheels and a family-sized bucket in front, one wheel in back. They are sturdy, easy to spot on the road and have a side benefit of being great
conversation starters.

“I don’t feel unsafe in my Christiana around here because we attract attention in that thing,” said Conway. “And having the girls right in front of me is completely opposite of what you see most often. What you get is this social aspect. It’s much easier for them to be social and you can point things out to them. It’s a real bonding experience.”

Another European import with this advantage, this time courtesy of the cycle-happy Dutch, is the Bobike mini bicycle seat. This contraption allows parents to cruise around with their toddler in one of the safest places possible, attached to the rear of the handlebars and surrounded by their parents’ body. The same company also makes models for the back of the bike for bigger kids.

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One go-to place for these and other European accoutrements is the Dutch Bicycle Company in Somerville. Co-owner Dan Sorger and his partner have been matching up European ideas with the realities of U.S. cities, even going so far as to create the “Swift,” a Dutch-style bike with a new frame geometry adapted to American streets. Sorger said he has also considered designing a new bike specifically for parents, but he hasn’t
decided to go forward with that idea just yet.

“I would either get a trike or I would just wait until my kids are old enough to ride with me,” said Sorger. “[The Sorte Jernhest] is the only one I’ve seen that is designed for moms. Other cargo bikes are designed for industry.”

Shying away from the Jernhest’s $4,500 price tag, however, other parents often choose between foldable Burley bike trailers, combinations of Bobike seats with Xtracycle bike extensions that add more room for a second seat in back, or Dutch-style “bakfiets”—a kind of two-wheeled bike truck. A lot of these options can be found or special ordered from local bike shops.

There is also the Madsen, a cargo bike/Tupperware container made in Utah that is making a splash with biking parents out west, but so far hasn’t found a Massachusetts dealer.

The Burley trailer was an early choice for Cambridge’s Megan Ramey, a brand new bike mom who first pedaled with baby on board this January. She blogs at 2wheels1baby.blogspot.com. A friend showed her how to secure a full child seat to the trailer, which has the advantage of double roll-bar protection from both the seat and the trailer.

“I’m even thinking now it’s safer than if she was with me on a bike,” Ramey said, adding that drivers give special consideration to biking parents. “I’ve really noticed that cars have given me so much more breadth when they pass me.”

And like many of her kind, Ramey avoids any street that trips her motherly danger alarm.

"I used to bike down Mass. Ave. but I know how that is," Ramey said. "I'm not willing to take that risk. My biggest fears are cabs and opening doors."

Some of these parents are also getting active advocating to make the design of those dangerous streets safer. Lauren Heffron in Arlington, for example, is becoming well
known in her town for biking everywhere with her three kids—all now old
enough to ride on their own—and for speaking up about it. She'd like to see more streets amenable to parents who ride.

"We're hoping Mass. Ave. when it becomes safer," Heffron said. "But they don't have bike lanes [yet]."

Lately she’s been involved both in a push for bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue, an issue that’s been taken up by candidates for Arlington Selectmen in the current election, and for trying to start a bike-focused Safe Routes to School program at the Hardy School. It’s clear from talking to her that, unlike parents from other neighborhoods, she’s feeling a little besieged for her lifestyle choice lately. Technically, Hardy policy doesn’t didn't formally allow biking to and from school until last year.

“This is not progressive,” she said, in the middle of a conversation about her struggle to implement the program. “I did it because my dad did it… This is like new-old-fashioned. If we’re biking, we’re being frugal. And frugality is an old world sensibility that should be valued. It’s safe, it’s cheapest, its the quickest and most efficient. I would like respect
for that.”

Pete Stidman lives in Boston and is a co-founder of the Boston Cyclists’ Union, a new group focusing on making everyday cycling safer for everyone. He can be reached at stidman@gmail.com.

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