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What to do when kids don’t want to go by bike

Posted by on December 5th, 2008 at 10:53 am

Marion Rice and daughter Gleneden

[Editor’s note: This article is by our Family Biking columnist Marion Rice. Marion previously wrote about how to keep kids warm and dry on the bike. Today, she offers up her tips and thoughts about what to do when your little ones don’t feel like hopping on the bike (which is something that I bet happens to all families at one point or another).]

Sometimes my kids say they don’t want to go by bike.

“I also have to admit — I keep emergency chocolate in my Xtracyle bag.”

We do have a car and the mere presence of a motorized, temperature controlled cocoon creates the potential option for using it. I often wonder how other bike commuting parents deal with this and what they say to get their kids going when they don’t want to.

Explaining why we don’t use the car during the week and having my kids share in the power of not using the car has been rewarding, even on the rare days I have to plead the case.

On the days when my six year old has second thoughts about biking this is usually how the conversations goes:

    Griffin: “Mom let’s take the car, do we HAVE to go by bike?”

    Mom: “Well, we choose to go by bike because it’s better for our bodies and better for Mother Earth.”

    Griffin:“I really don’t want to”

    Mom: “Griffin, today there is no reason we can’t take the bike, we always have fun and let’s just get out and go. We don’t need anything but our bodies to make the bike move and that is pretty powerful, if you want to ride on the Xtracycle or take your scooter instead you can.”

    Griffin: “O.k.”

Bike-Truck Safety Event-6.jpg

North Portlander Travis Wittwer and his three boys.

More often than not, Griffin complies and goes by wheel, whether it’s his bike, scooter or on my Xtracycle. Sometimes he gets on his bike in a bad mood, but shortly after taking off he perks up. We don’t yield and take the car unless there is a health or safety issue that would make taking the car or public transportation the wiser choice. Travis, a bakfiets-commuting Dad whose family also owns a car describes what he says to his children aged 3, 5 and 8 this way:

“My sons do understand that the money we don’t spend on a second car, or even on driving the only car, is money we can use for something else. Not as a reward or token, we have talked about how money saved from not having a car or driving it around a lot is money that we can use for Disneyland.

For me, this works well as it supports the idea that life is about choices and you cannot have everything at the same time. It also helps my sons to understand sacrifice: we sacrifice the luxury of a car for the fun of Disneyland.”

Story continues below

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Most often I pick my 2-year-old up from childcare with a snack to be eaten on the bike, French bread and a sippy cup of milk or juice. Usually she gets right on the bike and starts munching away. I ask her about her day and we have an enjoyable ride home. Every once in a while she doesn’t want to get on the bike and throws a fit. This has also happened on weekend rides doing errands.

On test- The Madsen Urban Utility Bicycle-12

Unfortunately, kids aren’t always
this happy to go by bike.

The first thing I do when the meltdown is imminent is to hold her close. I wait quietly until she has calmed down enough to talk. This is sometimes hard especially if we have somewhere to be on a schedule or people are staring at my fitful child and I sitting on the sidewalk somewhere.

Once she has calmed down we talk about what song she wants to sing or what unique sight we can go see on the way home. She loves the hot tub you can see from the Broadway Bridge, especially when it’s all lit up at night and glowing that aquamarine color (I agree it’s pretty cool). Lately, seeing all the holiday lights in the Pearl and in neighborhoods on our way home has been a huge draw.

I also have to admit — I keep emergency chocolate in my Xtracyle bag. I think that we all can use emergency chocolate every once in a while and she doesn’t just get it when she throws a fit. I am aware that I don’t want to reinforce having fits by giving her chocolate and so far the judicious use of it has worked for me.

What do you do when your kids don’t want to go? How do you handle it? More advice and ideas from everyone is much appreciated…

For more of Marion’s Family Biking articles, click here.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • glenzedrine December 5, 2008 at 11:34 am

    Disneyland? The trip alone, whether you fly or drive, negates any benefit the bike provides. That, and the place is a bastion of filth.

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  • JC December 5, 2008 at 11:42 am

    My kindergartener is 62 days into his public school career, and I just realized that he has ridden his bike to school all of those days except one(with me walking; it’s 7 blocks away). And admittedly, it was me who suggested taking the car in a torrential downpour!

    So far no complaints from him. I think it’s because he is self-motivated by the “cool factor”. All the kids, and especially the older ones, think it’s cool that he rides his bike everyday. It helps, too, now that we put the pedals back on and he is an official two-wheeler. And also that he has one of the smallest two wheelers out there (which gets the cute factor) with the coolest blue/white flames (which gets the cool factor).

    It’s funny to watch my somewhat shy son become an instant show-off at key moments.

    Anyone else see the “cool factor” at work at such a young age?

    I’ll be noting other comments on tricks to pull when/if he starts not wanting to ride his bike.

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  • Marion December 5, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Oh Glenzedrine.. you should see my daughter on the Xtracycle in her Disney Sleeping Beauty Princess dress… you might cringe 🙂

    My parents would never take me to Disneyland.. I still haven’t been any closer to it than the hotel for a conference.. but I bet we’ll go at some point. Enchanted Forest in Salem is our favorite place.. have you been? I wonder how to get there by bike.. now that would be an awesome trip!

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  • JayS. December 5, 2008 at 11:48 am

    We rarely have issues about getting on the bike (the kids never even ask how we are getting to school anymore). Maybe this story will help some of your kids.

    A couple months ago I hauled a few bags of compost in the car. They stayed in overnight and the smell still lingers. Now when I mention the car to the kids instead of shrieking that we need to take care of the earth, they shrivel up there noses and ask why we can’t take the bike because,”the car smell!” Of course I think it is the most natural smell our car has ever had.

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  • Marion December 5, 2008 at 11:51 am

    Ha Jay.. that is AWESOME! Usually when we do take the car our dog is with us.. and she’s a MAJOR FARTER… so I think we have similar smells, the only problem is at that point we are in the darn thing and lucky for dog farts they don’t do permanent damage! I was thinking the Madsen would be a great compost hauler!..

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) December 5, 2008 at 11:52 am

    In my family, our girls protest less and less to riding….but one of the problems is having the right biking option available for them.

    for instance, when we’re forced to only have the trailer, they don’t like having to squeeze into it like sardines (they’re 3 and 6).

    also, my 3 year old demands that she gets a quick ride on the trail-a-bike (that’s for my 6 year old) before she hops into the trailer.

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  • Zaphod December 5, 2008 at 11:53 am

    I find that the kids simply want to be entertained. They, of course, need to be clothed such that they’re comfortable and cozy.

    This next bit is more of a parenting comment versus a bike specific thing but… If a rule is consistent and never yields like, “Don’t ever touch the stove.” kids tend to get it and never try to do the thing. But if it’s some gray area for them, “Can we read one more book before bedtime.” they’ll loose their marbles pushing you for yet an additional thing. When it comes to books, if I cave (because I actually enjoy reading with the boys) then It’ll take DAYS of strict adherence to a precise 2 book policy or whatever to get them to stop a very aggressive campaign to get the extra. ** I should note that giving one more book only precipitates yet another.

    So with that, we never really put the “take the car” option on the table for discussion when bikes can do the job. If the choice becomes bike to the zoo or stay home then they happily (perhaps begrudgingly) accept it.

    So, how do we entertain them on the Xtracycle? We play counting games, we tell stories. One particularly effective one of late is to pretend that we’re flying. So we’d say, “I can look down and see the top of the Broadway Bridge.” or “Look down at those birds.” etc.

    They have their own set of handlebars and I’ll dangle a ziploc of snack stuff (ok cheddar bunnies if you must know) and call it a “musette.”

    When traversing a grid pattern and there are navigation options, I let the kid decide when to turn. And unless we’re on a tight schedule, we’ll stop to watch the random construction equipment or whatever.

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  • toddistic December 5, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Good article, I plan on taking my kids to school by bike once I actually have kids so I have a few years before that happens! 🙂

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  • Matthew Denton December 5, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Glenzedrine: While I agree, it is also part of our culture, and doing it once in a while helps you relate to others. For instance, I don’t own a TV, but I do go over to friends houses and watch Survivor, or Biggest Loser and other really stupid shows like that, because it allows me to relate to other people. I don’t watch every episode, but understanding our culture, (even if I think it sucks,) helps me relate to other people. (I also drive occasionally for the same reason.) As such, a trip to Disneyland once in a while is actually a good thing…

    In any case, I think Main Street USA in Disneyland is a real eye opener when you get older: The “perfect town” doesn’t have a 5 lane road and curbside parking in the middle of it, in fact, the perfect town is a place where you can walk down the middle of the street without even having to watch for cars, and you park half a mile away… I think that really says a lot about our cities.

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  • bahueh December 5, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    oh glenzedrine, you must be sooooo much fun at parties…

    bastion of filth? lighten up francis…

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  • aljee December 5, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    I concur, snacks are key!

    Also, I think that Burleys or other trailer options don’t have the same set of challenges that xtracycles and longbikes have.
    As a daily Burley Solo user (with a 4-year-old), one of our biggest challenges is communication. Since it has been too cold to keep the flap up lately, or when it rains, much frustration can occur if I can’t hear what she is saying. Having an activity like coloring or even just toys can make the trip much more enjoyable. Snacks make or break the 20-30min commute. And yes if it is a special day, or a really really hard day, treats can help immensely, though it does set a tricky precedent. Lately, her special treat is to watch the Sesame Street podcasts on my iphone, but it’s not something that happens everyday. Special treats and allowances are like power tools or credit cards, they can do good things or terrible things……

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  • Marion December 5, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Oohh I LOVE that.. my daughter loves my I Phone but I just can’t give it to her on the Xtracycle, that would be very dangerous. Great point about communication in the trailer.. I wonder if there are headsets like motorcyclists wear that would be good for that. GREAT ideas.

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  • justa December 5, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    bikey parents are awesome!

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  • aljee December 5, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    yeah, i know i have some walkie talkies somewhere that i have been planning on experimenting with for this purpose. i just need to rig up a decent handlebar mount.
    maybe there already is one, but this sounds like a good topic for an article: trailers vs long bikes vs bakfiets for kid hauling in portland. now with the madsen bike and the “carrier pigeon” and metrofiets there are more options than ever!

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  • JayS. December 5, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Entertainment was key in the early bike days now the kids are pretty good at coming up with there own games. We sing…a lot, we call out, out of state license plates, we look for horses on the curb, play eye spy and in the fall we keep our eyes open for fruit trees.

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  • Laura December 5, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    these strategies are great! AND they work regardless of whether the kid is 5.2 or 52!!!

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  • vanessa December 5, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    My kids rode their bikes from Fremont and 15th to both Buckman and Davinci in SE from kindergarten on. There were no trailabikes then. They rode their own bikes, the smallest one pedaling furiously to keep up the pace, and then having to do it 4 times a day, since she had 1/2 day kindergarten, and then we had to return to pick up her brother in the afternoon.
    Sometimes there was some whining, mainly about going up a small hill (wish I would have taken 18th instead of 11th all those years), but there was no weaseling out of it. It was the way we got around. All wearing yellow raincoats and riding on mellow and busy streets together.
    Having ridden with them so much, I then felt confidant to let them ride on their own to their friend’s houses when they were a bit older. I didn’t have to schlep them around or escort them. Not only was it liberating for them, but to myself as well.
    Now respectively 23 and 20 years old, one is a bike mechanic, and they both do not own cars. They ride their bikes everywhere still and have thanked me for getting them hooked.

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  • Laurie December 5, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Strategies when kids don’t want to go on the bike:
    -Find out why they don’t want to be on the bike and then get creative on how to solve it. If the trailer is too far away, make a seat for your bike (an old skateboard bolted to a rack is great), Jay’s kids complained of being wet, so he made a rain cover for his tandem (fabulous!).
    -Give them the choice here and there. When you let the kids choose bike or car, especially on the days it is raining and cold, they feel part of the decision. I would rather take the car now and then compared to having two kids who don’t like biking.
    -Water bottles, blankets, and warm milk are great for cold days.
    -The sure thing to get my kids on the bike — stopping at all the “free piles” on the trip.

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  • Joe December 5, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    did 50 miles with a 2 year old while ago,
    i guess my kids enjoy the ride, not threw
    shock treatment, but by gentleness!

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  • Joe December 5, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    that word threw, thought.. please forgive my spelling.. LOL

    have fun this weekend all!

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  • Travis Wittwer December 5, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    @glenzedrine, funny how this wonderful post about families and bikes turned into somewhat a rant on Disneyland for you; I find your comment about how Disneyland negates any benefit of the bike. Do you mean that going to Disneyland negates the fuel savings of the bike; negates the “holier than thou” feeling of biking; or negates the idea that a person who likes bikes cannot like Disneyland? I am curious because, sadly, unlike you appear to be, we do not live in trees, grow flax for our clothes, and ride bikes made entirely out of non-petroleum products and hand crafted in bamboo by artisans in Portland. Sorry to disappoint.

    However, sarcastic statement aside, I am interested in your take. What ales you about Disneyland and bikes?

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  • Duncan December 5, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Glenzadrine’s comment was the best.

    I haven’t laughed so hard in a week.

    Thanks dude.

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  • Travis Wittwer December 5, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    Snack are key. Very true Marion. I also like your idea, from a previous post, on tethering the cups. Brilliant.

    (My apologies to any spelling-cops for the spelling errors in the previous post.)

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  • LizardMama December 5, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    I think my son has been trying to miss the school bus so I will have to ride him to school on the Xtracycle. 🙂
    Seriously. He’s figured out that if he is late we have to take him and since I ride one of the X’s to work he sometimes gets to hitch a ride. Pthllllt. So much for having to convince the kid to ride! Makes me late for work though!

    Otherwise, the kids are totally bummed that the other X is out of order until I fix the handlebars. I wrecked downtown on the MAX tracks (no kids) and bent them off center a smidge more than I am comfortable riding w the kids until I fix. That’s the one they can both ride, since it has the Bobike seat for my 3yo. Guess I better get on it so they quit bugging me.

    For us, we have one car now, so if the car is away while my husband is at work… we stay home, bike, bus or MAX. They know there isn’t another option. Though they did suggest the other day that we take Daddy’s motorcycle. 🙂

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  • schrammalama December 5, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    I don’t have the answers for everyone, but this is what works for us.
    1. The kids have been going to daycare/school on bakes since they could ~ 1 year. That’s just the way it is.
    2. Make them comfortable. Once my daughter was too big for the trailer, we got a Kona UTE. No more complaints.
    3. Make them comfortable. Again, proper gear so they aren’t too cold, gloves, rain pants and jacket.

    That’s all I got.


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  • lekker December 5, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    One of the benefits I have found of zipping around town with my boys on their bicycles is the great conversations we have. I think that they share more about themselves when we are together on bikes than in the car -no ipods, no gameboys, no phones. I think they enjoy it as much as I do.

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  • Travis Wittwer December 6, 2008 at 7:54 am

    @lekker, you have a whole article right there. The increase of attention on each other and the decrease of the distractions of life. I have noticed that too. We spend about 40 minutes (usually twice a day), just talking and playing silly games on our commute.

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  • mike December 6, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    Many kids want some power to choose. So make the choices something you want.

    “We are going the store, do you want to ride bikes or walk?”

    Now my son often whines “can we please rid the trail a bike? It’s to far to walk”

    Or use an incentive.

    “We can go to the store in the car (yuck), or we can go on a bike and get hot chocolate (yes it is bribery, but if I wasn’t bribed at my job, I would never show up)(Stumptown sells children’s hot chocolates for $1).”

    For some kids peer pressure works. My son wants to do whatever his fiend is doing. When is friend is riding his bike with a backpack and a jacket and gloves, my son will cry if he cant do the exact same.

    Once you get them on the bike make it fun. We also sing songs, and ride up the curbs and what not.

    I also always tell him how much I love him and love that he rides his bike with me.

    Whatever it takes, Ill do it. Many of the best conversations between me and my dad, and me and my son have been on bikes.

    I am almost sad his new school is so close, or ride is very short.

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  • mike December 6, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Forgot to mention. In the summer slurpees work well in place of hot chocolate.

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  • Travis Wittwer December 6, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    @Mike, you rock.

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  • spanky December 6, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Wife and i both work. We haave four kids. A lot of this stuff works if you have a mellow work schedule and one or two kids, but as kids get older and have soccer across town after school, you have work demands that demand a car (like: Salem in the AM and Beaverton in the PM), and kids with dance, martial arts lessons and piano or whatnot, bikes quickly become completly unrealistic. We use them when we can, but like any tool or trnsport option, they are not, and never can be, the end all and be all. We view them as a transport option, and not a religious belief.

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  • daniel December 7, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    my sons are 4 (on a trail-a-bike) and 6 (on his own bike). The 6 year old often rebels furiously when he’s tired, as the ride is about 2 miles with a couple small hills. like every challange with parenting, creative solutions work best. snacks/toys are out while riding, but games are in. So as long as we’re on side streets with little traffic, bike tag is fun. Also, i drag/launch him up hills when safe. pretend war, where we blow up the enemy (cars) and free our allies (other bikes) can get us a good mile or so of relative peace (don’t wag your fingers at me folks, you don’t have 2 boys!). Ninjas, space monkeys, whatever, just keep it fresh and positive.

    to all you parents who ride with your kids…you rock!

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  • eileen December 7, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Okay, before I say what I’m going to say, I have to preface it with, a) I’m not always good at following my own advice and b) I KNOW how hard it is.

    That being said, I think that the more you do it, the more you just stick to your guns, the less complaining you will hear. When they realize their complaints are fruitless, they won’t bother. In theory.

    It is important to give them a sense of choice and control in their lives, but do it in little, acceptable ways. Like say, “Would you rather have the cover on or off?” Or “do you want to sit in the trailer or ride the trail-a-bike?” or whatever your set-up is. But don’t let one of the choices be to ride in the car.

    I think 2 is a hard age. My four year old still makes me late sometimes by throwing a fit about, oh, say, his socks. So it’s not about the bike, it’s about being 2 and being tired or hungry or stressed. It sounds like you handle it as well as you can and just need to hang in there because she WILL grow up.

    By the way, you can take a train to disneyland! We are planning to do that next year.

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  • bikey Mama carie December 7, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    We have a bakfiets and I love the christmas lights taped to the rain cover-with controls on each side- one for the 4 yo and one for the 1.5 yo!! thank you ikea, recharge batteries and fun colors, all set to go.
    They don’t fight about sitting in the drier warmer space and I can hear them with the little flap rolled up. songs work well and some snacks stop the whining. Good Luck bikey parents.

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  • David December 9, 2008 at 1:27 am

    There are many ways of keeping children dry and warm on bikes. Quite a lot of people here have windscreens on the front of their bikes to stop children in front seats from being exposed to wind and rain.

    You also find baby seats for bicycles so that babies can be carried from the age of 4 months.

    It’s really a matter of having the right equipment, and the right environment. Children also all cycle to school.

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  • Shadd December 11, 2008 at 11:44 am

    It has never been a problem with the kids(5 and 3.5). Maybe it’s because they have been in a bike trailer a few months after they were born or they like the adventure of it. Even when it is cold outside they will grab their fleece blankets and say lets go!

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  • Travis Wittwer December 13, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    @bikey Mama carie, any photos of your bakfiets set up? I would love to see the lights. Here is a snapshot of our bakfiets done up for Halloween (Bakfietsenstein)

    I have a present theme going on right now.

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  • Eric May 16, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Is forcing a kid to ride along – not riding his own bike, mind you – a good idea? It seems to me that when the kid grows up he would be less incline to want to ride a bike if they had bad experiences/memories with bikes – not to mention parents that forced him to do something he didn’t want to do – at an early age. Is fear a factor? It’s scary riding a bike in traffic, even for an adult.

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  • Thomas Bailey June 8, 2009 at 3:51 am

    I have been biking for 20 years. One of my favorite biking routes has heavy traffic. Some of my rides are very long, such as the 100-km (62 mi) ride from Moffett Field (where I work) to Hollister, 70 km (43.5 miles) to San Francisco and to Oakland, also to Gilroy, Half Moon Bay, Sausalito, and Santa Cruz. The only problem I run into is theft, having lost 18 bikes that way. The weather where I live is rarely a problem, occasional rain, occasionally hot, rarely cold, nothing to worry about.
    I cannot afford a car. The bus is not really an option because I work nights, which leaves biking, which I enjoy greatly.

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  • Vlad December 30, 2009 at 2:06 am

    DisneyLand… well, it makes sense to me: if your intention is not to pollute the earth then it doesn’t matter if that pollution is done on daily basis as commuting or on special trips as vocations – just don’t do it… almost everyone is involved in pollution so this perspective is radical and may seem impractical – that depends on your priorities… keep your job and your life style? or simplify radically, give up… so that our children may enjoy such basics as clean water and air.

    The filth part… well, if you consider that environment toxic why expose yourself to it at all. I need all the support i can get so i’m interested in nurturing community; not flirting with toxicity… for me encounters with the mainstream happen frequently, w/o planning.

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