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Editorial: When it comes to family biking, size matters

Posted by on March 4th, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Family biking-8
An impromptu group family ride led
to realizations about the size and quality
of our bikeways.
(Photos © J. Maus)

A few weekends ago my girls and I, and several other families, planned to attend a local event. Since it was a sunny day, the location of the event was fairly close, and we all tend to bike frequently anyways, it turned into an impromptu group ride. There were kids (youngest was age 7) riding bikes on their own, kids in tag-alongs, and adults with various types of family cargo bikes. There were about 13 of us in all.

While I enjoyed the company of friends and the pleasant ride, being the bike geek that I am, I also couldn’t help from noticing a few other things.

The first thing I noticed is that a group of families riding together really catches people’s attention. In Portland, 10-15 people riding a bike is no big deal (especially during the morning and evening rush hours), but when there are little kids in the mix, people really take notice.

I kept thinking how cool it was that this wasn’t an organized ride, it just so happened that we all decided to ride our bikes to the same place (I hope someday seeing a bunch of families on bikes doesn’t draw so many stares).

Family biking-2
Standard bike lanes can be a tight
squeeze when riding with kids.

It also struck me how inadequate standard bike lanes are when riding with kids. Why? At just four or five feet wide, it’s nearly impossible to ride next to a small child — which, as a father of a 7-year old who is just learning to mix with traffic, is something I feel compelled to do. With parked cars on one side and traffic going 35 mph on the other, there was sort of an evolutionary magnet pulling me alongside my daughter as if to create a little cocoon of safety around her (see photo at right).

Family biking-6
Sensing safety, the kids pedaled ahead.

Which brings me to my next observation. Once we got off the main “residential” street (Rosa Parks Way, which has a 35 mph speed limit and a parking lane) we rolled onto the backstreet bliss of NE Holman. Holman is a key east-west street in the area (an excellent alternative to Ainsworth — another “bike route” on city maps that is very inhospitable to bike traffic) and is slated to be a bike boulevard some day. As we got onto Holman, the kids naturally left the safety cocoon of their parents and rode out in front of us. Sometimes three or four abreast, they just pedaled along without a care in the world (until they came to an intersection of course).

Back in the ’90s, when PBOT began to build our bike network in earnest, bike lanes on major streets were the bikeway du jour. Thankfully, bike lanes have fallen out of style and taken a back seat to other, larger bikeway treatments like bike boulevards, buffered bike lanes, cycle tracks, and so on.

And that brings me to my final observation (for now). Like this short neighborhood trip illustrates, bike boulevards are great, but they usually don’t go all the way to desired destinations. Until we create safe, comfortable, and family-sized bikeways that go all the way from A to B, a group of families biking to a neighborhood event will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.

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  • She March 4, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. My kids ride their bikes to and from school every day. I rode with them in elementary school and I remember the thrill for my daughter when she first rode her bike home from 5th grade by herself – she was so excited. I was not far behind her and she was FAST, too!

    These big group rides are a perfect opportunity for kids to learn good biking habits and etiquette from their parents and from parents of friend.

    Well done!

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  • Zaphod March 4, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Well said Jonathon. I surely feel a different level of safety is required when kids are riding solo.

    And Ainsworth… the discord between its beauty and the stress i feel when on it is striking. Cars cannot pass unless I salmon into the larger gaps between parked cars. If the driver(s) isn’t responsive to move past, I’m then confronted with a self-induced pinch point. The alternative is to force the motorist to go cargo bike speeds the whole time. While drivers are usually polite enough, I don’t feel comfortable doing this.

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  • Angela Koch March 4, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Excellent observations, Jonathan. We had a similar impromptu ride last fall when three families (8 kids!) left our girls’ soccer team party to ride home. The kids had a blast riding together at lit up like Christmas trees at night on the lower traffic neighborhood streets and the parents all appreciated the safety of the group as we made difficult crossings on higher traffic streets, including a bit on NE 28th to cross Sandy. I share your dream that Portland will keep families in mind as the infrastructure continues to improve.

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  • Kevin Wagoner March 4, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Good stuff, thanks for sharing. We have a 15 month old and I thought of introducing her to riding in the road doesn’t sound terribly appealing to me…I’m sure I’ll put it off for a long time.

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  • Oliver March 4, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    I’m curious about how other parents feel about riding with their munchkins around town. Do you stick to bike boulevards and trails? What’s off-limits?

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  • bikey mama carie March 4, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    The Bike Show on KBOO fm addressed bicycling with kids on this month’s show yesterday. Here’s the link:

    http://cdn1.libsyn.com/portlandtransport/kboobike_20100303.mp3?nvb=20100304021857&nva=20100305022857&t=0aa4a8bba21f8b8672756

    It’s up to you and where you feel safe, glad to see more parents & kids on bikes!

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  • trail user March 4, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Trail gator. Not too expensive and can detach the kid when it’s time.

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  • Paul Souders March 4, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    “Until we create safe, comfortable, and family-sized bikeways that go all the way from A to B, a group of families biking to a neighborhood event will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.”

    I’d love to have even a few disconnected blocks of bike boulevard in my neighborhood (outer SW PDX). But given the topography I’m not optimistic.

    I take my 2-y.o. to/from daycare by bike (trailer), about 1.5/mi each way. On our daycare route here’s not a single inch of boulevard, and 1 block of bike lane on SW Capitol hwy. That last block on Capitol is the most stressful for some reason. Otherwise we take the lane — what choice is there? — and to my neighbors’ credit I’ve never heard a car-horn or curseword.

    A common site in my neighborhood is people loading up their kids and bikes in a car, then driving to a parking lot or park, and watching them ride around in little circles. That’s just sad.

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  • Ethan March 4, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    Great piece Jonathan. One of my (frequent) observations about NE Holman east of MLK is also what a pitiful state the pavement is in. They just repaved NE Dekum, a fairly high traffic street that is a few blocks North . . . I always wonder if elevation to “bike boulevard” will mean smoother pavement for smaller tires.

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  • Shane March 4, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Great piece Jonathan!

    One issue that I know has come up here in Eugene as we work to build better Bike Boulevards is the need to “sell the idea” to the neighborhoods because there is a general fear of diverters and traffic circles, mostly by neighbors of streets that parallel the Boulevard. The concern is that it will actually increase traffic on their street as you reduce traffic on the Bike Boulevard.
    Some neighborhoods are very supportive and “get it” but all it takes are a couple vocal neighbors to stop a project that could make a nice neighborhood street a great bike boulevard through-way.

    I too am really glad that the idea and implementation of “bike facilities” is growing, it’s the best way to get kids biking to school again and to make cycling as easy of a choice as driving is now.

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  • Steve B. March 4, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    This is not enough space for people. I think these photos state that pretty well. I like the idea of planning for minivan-load capacity on our bikeways, especially along routes that connect our schools, parks and shops.

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  • Jen Smith March 4, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    I might have seen your group pass by my house. If it wasn’t you, I’m happy to have seen lots of group rides like this on my strip of NE Holman.

    The pavement is indeed uneven but I agree it’s a much preferable route than Ainsworth, especially if you’re taking it slow or with little ones.

    Can’t wait to have Sunday Parkways outside my front door in May! Thanks for the post.

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  • Steven can plan – Posts I liked today March 4, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    [...] Editorial: When it comes to family biking, size matters. Families use bikeways and streets differently than individual riders and even other grouped [...]

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  • Stripes March 4, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    I don’t understand how families living on the eastside, be it north, northeast, or southeast, get across the river to downtown by bike. there doesn’t appear to be much of a single safe way to cross the willamette river with a young child. some of the bridges *themselves* aren’t too bad, such as the hawthorne. but the roads you need to take to *get* onto the bridges… with a five-year old in tow? hawthorne overpass? broadway/weidler? clay street (choked with car traffic, even although it’s supposed to not be a major street…) wow, that’s scary!

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  • Dave Proctor March 4, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    [...]hawthorne overpass?[...]

    This is one of my preferred routes. Clay has served me and my family well so far, haven’t noticed it being “choked”. I take that up to 6th, then north to Madison for one block in a bike lane before the overpass.

    A calmer route is to take the Steel Bridge because the bike/pedestrian deck isn’t up with traffic, it’s at bank level. Also easy to use if you’re using waterfront park or the esplanade to do some north/south.

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  • Paul Adkins March 4, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Excellent. I’ve had 2 of my kids riding on the quieter streets since they were 4 years old. I’ve found myself doing the same thing [riding on the left close to them] when on streets with bike lanes. We don’t use them very often, even now that they are 9 and 7. We really prefer the residential streets where the traffic is slow and we seem to be able to find safe ways to get to shopping, school, and fun places without having to ride on busy car traffic streets.

    We have two more kids coming up the ranks. Twins that are 4 now. We are car free and live in a place where drivers are extremely friendly and, seeing the kids riding, drive incredibly carefully in my opinion.

    We find ourselves in these big groups often, as most guests to our house end up on bikes. We invite friends to ride with us, and we show them the fun we have riding as a family. If you bring your family to ride in Eugene, let me know, and we’ll be happy to show you around.

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  • [...] from around the network: Bike Portland on the importance of better bike infrastructure for families that ride for transportation. The Bus [...]

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  • BicyclesOnly March 5, 2010 at 7:47 am

    Great article. Family cycling for transportation is growing here in New York City as well. We’ve got the same problem with four and five foot wide lanes. I ride on my kids’ outside flank, just outside the bike lane, and most motorists seem to respect that.

    Here are links to a wiki piece on Urban Cycling with Children, and some photos whowing how NYC families cycle to school:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/sets/72157604119157025/

    http://www.livablestreets.com/streetswiki/urban-bicycling-with-children

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  • danlatorre March 5, 2010 at 8:49 am

    I’d add to this that riding abreast is a natural social thing for all people, of all ages, not just adults and children. Look at how we travel when walking on sidewalks. I share the same complaint when riding with friends, riding two abreast & catching up on life is far more enjoyable than talking loudly to someone ahead or behind you. City DOTs should make bike lanes wide enough for two adult riders.

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  • [...] we destroyed them and replaced it with this? That's sad. Really sad. More from around the network: Bike Portland on the importance of better bike infrastructure for families that ride for transportation. The Bus [...]

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  • [...] from around the network: Bike Portland on the importance of better bike infrastructure for families that ride for transportation. The Bus [...]

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  • Kt March 5, 2010 at 11:05 am

    CONNECTIVITY!!

    Great article, and can be expanded to cover people who don’t ride but are interested in doing so– if only there were safe routes that went from point A to point B without a lot of meandering.

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  • Mike March 5, 2010 at 11:24 am

    One of the things I have noticed is that cars are generally much nicer when I have kids along. They pass nice and slow, knowing that kids make mistakes.

    But when we get in a bike lane that changes. It seems to offer a false sense of security that freaks me out.

    So, I almost never use bike lanes or main roads when with kids unless there is room on the inside of the bike lane where I can be on the left of said kid.

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  • Paul Johnson March 8, 2010 at 1:40 am

    Err, doing it wrong much? Ride single-file in the lane, lane splitting isn’t legal.

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  • Paul Johnson March 8, 2010 at 1:51 am

    Also, Oregon bicycle lanes are six feet wide. Don’t believe me? Check Oregon’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or grab a tape measure and measure your local one.

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  • Dave March 8, 2010 at 8:24 am

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for the great piece – I think this is something that a lot of people are starting to feel.

    Of course, riding with kids who are on their own bikes, you want them to be protected from automobile traffic. But even those of us without kids – We want to be able to chat with people as we ride, or be able to ride at different speeds, or even to simply feel that we can relax a bit without winding up either in a car lane, or without a car in our lane – and the current bike lanes just don’t allow for any of that. There is just barely enough room to squeeze by someone if they are way over to one side of the lane, and cars on both sides of you – it feels very pinched at times.

    It will be great when there are bike boulevards, which connect to cycle tracks that take you through sections of busier streets, that then lead you to more bike boulevards, and on and on through the city.

    I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time.

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