[Note: This article was written by BikePortland.org’s Carfree Families columnist Marion Rice.]
(All photos © J. Maus)
There are many different bike set-ups that will get you around town with kids. In fact, there are so many it can be downright confusing and overwhelming just to wade through all the choices.
It’s easy when your kids are young. But as they grow, they want more independence and it gets a bit trickier to find just the right family biking solution.
To help you find what works best for you and your little ones, I’ve pulled together some information and links on a few of the most popular options…
1) Your Own Bike and 1 or 2 Child Seats
If you already own a sturdy bike and your children are 1-3 years old, attaching a child seat (or two) might be a great solution. Traditional child seats attach to the rear rack of the bike and can carry up to 70 lbs. There are also seats available that attach to the front of your bike (and put your child between the handlebars and your arms). These front seats can usually carry kids weighing up to 33 lbs.
Child seats are a solid option for carrying kids, but they’re not so great for taking stuff along at the same time. They also raise the center of gravity of your bike which can compromise handling and make it hard to dismount (unless you’ve got a “step-through” style frame).
If you don’t already own a bike, and want to find a good one for adding child seats, take a look at some of the Dutch bikes available at Clever Cycles — they’re strong, sturdy and have that “step through” design that makes dismounts and general handling of the bike much easier.
Suggested Child Seat Manufacturers:
2) Xtracycle Conversion with a Child Seat on Your Existing Bike
An Xtracycle is a kit that extends the wheelbase of a bike, adding an elongated back rack (a “snap deck”) and improving how the bike handles with heavier loads. It allows you to carry one or two children (ages 5 and up) on the long rear rack and, if carrying just one child on the rack, there’s enough room to install a child seat. In addition to your kid(s), you can also carry up to 4 bags of groceries or other stuff in the side bags it comes with.
This is the ultimate set-up for going places with your kids and for being able to transport a heck of a lot of stuff at the same time. I currently use this configuration and have found it to work great. If you want to use your existing bike, I suggest having a custom-built rear wheel that will allow you to carry more weight (the one your existing bike was probably not built for the amount of weight you can carry with the Xtracycle).
If you’re thinking of going this route, you may want to invest in some better than average brakes (maybe even “roller” or “disc” brakes). Also keep in mind that the Xtracycle kit works much better with mountain-bikes and cruiser/hybrids as opposed to “10-speed” style bikes. If you need a new bike, you may want to check out a bike that comes with the Xtracycle already installed. Clever Cycles has a few built up, and Xtracycle.com sells them ready-to-go and already installed with a few different types of bikes.
Clever Cycles (Southeast)
Revolver Bike Shop (North – I mention this shop because I know they’ve set up several families with Xtracycles.)
3) Add a Bike Trailer to Your Bike
A bike trailer attaches to your bike and is towed behind. You can take 1-2 kids in a trailer, as well as toys, books and other stuff.
This is the option many parents choose. Parents have told me they like trailers because their child is close to the ground, protected from the elements, they don’t throw stuff out of the trailer (usually), it is very easy to maneuver, and kids can sleep comfortably.
Some parents take babies in trailers by fitting their car seat inside the trailer. That’s a decision you should make after consideration of all the issues and determine what’s right for you and your family.
One downside to trailers is that it’s hard to talk to or hear your child if they are crying or need something. A good idea is to invest in an easy to use walkie-talkie with a headset.
4) The Dutch Solution: A Bakfiets
(Pronounced bahk-feets. Plural is “bakfietsen”)
A bakfiets, Dutch for “box bike”, can carry up to four children. Kids and cargo can be thrown in the generous front box. In its original configuration, it seats two kids – both with a two-point seat belt. An additional bench can be added to the box for a third child and the back rack can accommodate an additional child seat.
This is such a cool human-powered vehicle. The cargo and kid capacity just can’t be beat. Riders need to get used to the front wheel being several feet ahead which makes steering and turning a bit challenging in the beginning but fine once you get used to it. A great rain cover (available as an option) keeps kids and gear dry in wet weather.
5) Add on a Tag-Along Bike
A tag-along (a.k.a. trailer cycle or trail-a-bike) is a third wheel with handlebars that attaches to your bike, usually on the bike seat stem or to the back rack.
This option really only works for an older child (ages 4 and up) who is strong enough to hold onto the handles, pedal, and not fall asleep while riding. Tag-alongs are great because kids feel like they’re riding a real bike but you have the security of knowing they aren’t going to veer off where they could get hurt.
You can also easily take it on-and-off your bike when you don’t need it. A tag-along bike can easily be added to many other bike set-ups described, but it just makes your bike really long (we like to call them family taxis or family trains!).
6) Family Tandems
There are a tandems built for two, three and four riders. With some tandems the adult rides in back and with others, the adult rides in front.
This option is great for families with mostly older kids (4+) or only one child under 4 and families that generally travel to the same vicinity when commuting.
Suggested Tandem Resources:
7) New on the Scene: The Madsen
This is a cargo utility bike with a bucket on the back that can hold up to 600lbs. The bucket comes with a bench seat and two seat belts. Load the kids and a bunch of groceries in the bucket and you are on your way too and from school or around town. A rain cover is not available yet but in the works.
The Madsen is a wonderful option for families with up to four kids, ages 2 and up. Depending on how you load it, you could even figure out a way to take the dog along. The Madsen is a surprisingly stable ride fully loaded and the gear spread is sufficient to get around Portland even on tough hills. For the price, this is a very versatile option.
Suggested Madsen Resources:
8) Another New Cool Thing on the Scene: The FollowMe
The FollowMe is a new product designed to help parents bridge the transition period between when a child needs to be toted around on someone else’s bike and when they’re able to ride independently anywhere and everywhere. It’s a device that attaches to the back of an adult’s bike and can be folded out to hitch onto a kid’s bike’s front wheel — and both adult and child can ride off together, with or without the kid pedaling along.
The FollowMe offers a perfect solution to transitional challenges for young riders. My son can ride his own bike alongside his dad on quiet streets, and then ride attached to dad for trickier stretches. The FollowMe with my son’s bike on board feels very stable and securely connected. It is about the same weight as a tag along. Without the kid’s bike, and with the arm and strut folded up onto the rack, my bike felt just like it always does. We reviewed this set-up here.
Suggested FollowMe Resources:
As with many things, there are pros and cons to all of these choices. The best way to figure out what’s right for you is to visit some of the great local bike shops we have, do some research, and of course ask people you know or see riding. You can also find great deals on used gear online and at used shops or yard sales.
And remember, in the end, the most important thing is to just get out there and enjoy the ride!
If you have feedback or questions, please share them in the comments below.
Marion Rice has been producing educational media since 1993. She has been the Executive Producer of a number of web sites for PBS.org including The PBS Parents Guide To Talking With Kids About War and Violence, History Detectives and The New Heroes. Most recently she was the Co-Executive Producer of a web site for parents to help them support their children’s emergent literacy from birth to age 5.
Marion Rice started writing the Family Biking column for BikePortland in 2008. She is interested in developing stories that are relevant to families on all parts of the car free/ car light continuum. In addition to writing, Marion helps the BikePortland team with her experience in fund-raising and corporate development. If you have a story idea or would just like to get in touch, you can reach her at (503) 708-0707 or at marion[at]bikeportland.org.