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Editorial: When it comes to family biking, size matters

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).

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).

Sensing safety, the kids pedaled ahead on their own.

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.