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With six kids and no car, this mom does it all by bike

Posted by on June 28th, 2012 at 8:25 am

Emily Finch powers her seven-person family vehicle down SE Clay Street.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Biking with kids is all the rage in Portland these days, but biking with six kids between the ages of 2 and 11? That’s something I never would have thought possible before I met southeast Portland resident Emily Finch.

Emily Finch.

Finch, 34, is a powerhouse. Watching her pedal her bakfiets cargo bike with four kids in the front, another one in a child seat behind her, and another one on a bike attached to hers via the rear rack, is a sight that not only inspires — it forces you to re-think what’s possible.

A few days ago, I rolled over to the Finch house in Ladd’s Addition to join Emily and the kids on a trip to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). I pulled up to a scene of five kids (and one doll) already strapped into the bakfiets and three others milling about. Hey that’s eight! I thought to myself. It turned out Emily invited a few neighborhood kids to come along.

Before we rolled out, I met the young Finches: Nathan, 11; Mary, 9; Lucy, 7; Ben, 5; Olivia, 4; and Maya, 2.

Emily’s usual set-up is three kids up front, one on the child seat, one pedaling an attached bike (usually Mary), and Nathan riding by himself. As we set off toward OMSI, I got to observe the Finch-mobile in action. It was massive and it was alive with sounds and movement. Heads and arms bobbled while music blared from the on-board sound system.

“I thought I’d made the biggest, stupidest, most expensive mistake in my whole life. I thought I couldn’t ride it. It was seriously exhausting.”
— Emily Finch

Emily was wearing a dress, a black leather vest, a Bern helmet with built-in visor, and stylish, open-toed shoes. She’s a relatively small woman, which made her command of the vehicle — and the style with which she operated it — all the more impressive.

Faced with pedaling several hundred pounds (she once estimated a load of groceries, kids, and gear at 550 pounds) she has perfected a technique to deliver maximum power to the pedals. With that large a load, just sitting down won’t do. When needed, Emily rises out of the saddle, grabs her handlebars like a weightlifter grabs a barbell, and stands over her pedals with a pumping motion that keeps her moving at regular biking speed among city traffic. The bike attached to the rear of the bakfiets is a key part of the motor. “I rotate kids into pumping position to keep them fresh,” Emily tells me.

As we ride up a slight incline, Emily barks orders to her rear, “Pump Mary, pump!”

For someone who looks so comfortable commandeering this large, wheeled contraption, it’s hard to believe Emily never really biked at all in her adult life until a few years ago. How she ended up here — both in Portland and as captain of a human-powered mini-van — is a story worth sharing.

Emily grew up in a Catholic family, with what she described as a “very conservative” mother. She got married, started having kids in her early 20s, and settled down in the small central Pennsylvania town of Williamsport. When she was 28, Emily re-kindled a relationship with her father whom she’d last seen when she was only 12. It was his influence that steered her life toward a different course. “I didn’t get to know my dad until my late 20s,” she shared, “And he was like totally left-wing and telling me about peak oil and everything.”

Around the summer of 2009, with her father’s perspectives firmly ingrained, Emily said, “I started looking at my life… I was living in a giant house and had a nine-person Suburban. I remember thinking, there’s no reason I can’t walk or bike around town.”

Williamsport was a pleasant place with a grid of interconnected streets just waiting to be walked and biked on. Emily first got a triple jogging stroller because, she said, “I didn’t think it was possible to bike with my kids.” Then one day, still searching for an alternative to her huge SUV, she Googled “family bike” and a bakfiets appeared on the screen.

Later that night, when her husband Mitch (a neurologist at Providence Hospital in Milwaukie) came home, she broke the news: “I told him I’ve found something that is going to change my life.” Emily called Portland bike shop Clever Cycles that same night, ordered a bakfiets, and had it shipped to Williamsport.

A switch had flipped for Emily, and you could blame it on a bakfiets. “I was at a time in my life when something had to change,” she said, “When I saw that bike, I knew it. I said, ‘This is it. This is going to change my life.'”

And it did.

When the bike showed up in front of her house, it came off the truck bubble-wrapped and, the way Emily tells it, made for quite the scene. “I was already the town freak,” she remembered, laughing, “I’d had three home-births and now this… People thought I’d had a DUI or something! They asked, ‘Is that a boat on wheels? Are you going to carry your kids in that!?'”

At that time, Emily had five kids and she was pregnant with little Maya. She couldn’t wait to give this new bike a try. Mitch worked just a half-mile away, so Emily piled the kids in and started riding over to his office to show it off. Then, she recalled, “I thought I’d made the biggest, stupidest, most expensive mistake in my whole life.”

With all that weight (the bike itself weights well over 100 pounds), Emily could barely pedal it. “It killed me,” she said, “I thought I couldn’t ride it. It was seriously exhausting.”

But Emily was committed. There was no going back. “I just kept biking… I got used to it and I’m one with the bike now.”

The bike changed Emily in many ways. “I was really depressed before,” she shared, “But I was so happy after I got the bike. I just loved it.” It also led her to realize she would never be happy in Williamsport. In spring of 2010, she decided she wanted to move. They considered Boulder and Corvallis; but her dream, she said, was Portland.

For many reasons she knew this town would fit her. “And the biking is accepted here, and it’s easy. There’s such a difference.”

Soon she’d sold that big Suburban (Emily’s name on Twitter is @1lessgmsuburban) and moved to Portland. (The Finch family owns a car. It’s a sedan and only Mitch drives it. He takes it work everyday.) Emily knew that without a car in the driveway, she’d be forced to learn how to get around without one, and she wouldn’t be tempted to hop in it.

“I haven’t driven once in Portland… [Not having a car] has pushed us to do a lot more than I would ever do if I had a vehicle sitting there in the driveway, especially when it’s pouring down rain and everyone’s angry.”

When it rains, Emily said she just puts on wool and gets wet. The kids put on boots and jackets, and huddle under the bakfiets’ rain cover. Don’t the kids ever want to just hop in a car? I ask: “They’ve lost that sense of driving,” Emily replied, “My kids have forgotten what it’s like to even be in a car.”

It helps that many of Emily’s new friends bike with their kids too. That kind of support has made it much easier.

“Coming from Pennsylvania, It’s mind-boggling to me that kids come over and they’ll already have a helmet and be all set for biking… If we bump into someone, we can switch kids and be on our way.”

But if you’re think Emily’s life is easy, you’re wrong. “It’s hard,” Emily says.

“The Suburban had thick walls and tinted windows, and you could turn the radio up so that when everyone’s screaming no one could hear and nobody knows all the drama that’s going on in that bubble. But on the bike, it’s all out there, for everyone to see.”

There have been some embarrassing and trying moments for this biking family. As expected with kids, tantrums happen. Often it leads to one of them refusing to get into their seats. When that happens, Emily says bungee-cords are her savior.

“I have literally bungee-corded my 5-year-old to the back of the bike. He wouldn’t get on. He was screaming and everyone was staring, so I stuck him on the seat and bungee-corded him in and just started pedaling really hard… He screamed all the way home.”

She shared several stories like that.

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And then there’s the time it takes just to get everyone ready and the fighting from being in such close quarters. Emily says it takes at least an hour from when they think they’re ready to go somewhere to when they’re actually rolling out. “It’s total chaos… We can’t find somebody’s helmet, someone’s missing a shoe… Then by the time we get that sorted out, the kids in the front of the bike are killing each other.”

Tempers also tend to flare after long distances. Emily says 20 miles in one day is the limit. After that, everyone is tired and grouchy.

Bungee-cords help keep unruly kids at bay and they can also come in handy for strapping on cargo. Emily shared a photo with me of a recent trip to stock up on food for the freezer: There was five chickens, a duck, a “ton of bacon”, a five pound pail of strawberry preserves, five pounds of coconut oil, a “big thing of hot dogs.” It all fit, thanks to a combination of bungee-cords, room under the seats of the front bakfiets’ cargo bin, and some dogged determination.

From a financial perspective, the bakfiets as family vehicle is an astounding bargain. In three years, Emily estimates she’s spent about $135 dollars maintaining her bike. For some reason, people are always curious about how much her bakfiets costs. “It’s funny how many people ask me how much it costs,” Emily says, “If someone’s driving around with a $4,000 car, no one asks, ‘Oh, how much does that cost?’. Really, it’s such a bargain in the long run. It’s amazing.”

It also saves her money on exercise equipment or a gym membership. She’s lost 25 pounds since she got the bike in 2009 and says she never thought she’d get back to her pre-birth weight after having six kids. When I asked her why she doesn’t get an electric-assist system, she replied with a big smile, “Because I like chocolate!”

While she credits bicycling for restoring her happiness and maintaining her sanity (if you have kids you’ll understand that), there’s one thing she feels like she’s missing by not having a big family car. “I sometimes feel like I’m not giving the kids enough. I can’t just pile them in the car and go to the coast. We just don’t do stuff like that.”

Emily isn’t anti-car or opposed to driving one because she feels she’s saving the planet. That idea is laughable, given the immense carbon footprint of an eight-person family. “I cancel out my bike riding every day with all the other terrible things I do,” she admits. “I don’t compost, I stink at vegetable gardening.”

Emily bikes for a simple and somewhat corny reason. It makes her happy. And she and Mitch love the sweet chaos of children and family. “I love my bike,” she insisted repeatedly during our conversation, “I really do. Because it’s changed my life. I can’t really explain it. In the end, my bike just brings me happiness.”

Follow Emily’s trials and tribulations via Twitter @1lessgmsuburban.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @BikePortland on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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Jerry
Guest
Jerry

Awesome. Be careful though. I used to haul my kids around in a bike trailer, back in the day before those new-fangled bakfiets came around. One of them became a Zoobomber/tall biker.
Yes, I am a very proud father.
Thank you Jonathan and Emily. Happy trails!

Scott
Guest
Scott

I don’t think I could do it but what a fun story with great shots of the family cycling. Hats off to the Finch family!

Smedley Basilone
Guest
Smedley Basilone

Very well written. I ride with a smile on my face most of the time, girls think I’m smiling at them. I’m just smiling at how happy cruising on two wheels makes me.

MossHops
Guest

That is awesome. I saw Emily and the kids biking up the hill from OMSI a few months ago. When I saw it, I was tempted to yell “You’re a badass!!!” but then thought better of it thinking that maybe such a statement wouldn’t be taken quite the right way.

Now, I’ve thought better of thinking better and have to say that there just isn’t a better descriptor for this: It is totally badass. It’s just awesome and totally encouraging to those of us who bike with kids.

Spiffy
Guest

she’s awesome! somebody should do a short documentary about her family…

LoveDoctor
Guest
LoveDoctor

Plain and simple, AWESOME. If you listed to the general discourse of the public comments on any mass media article related to doing real work (commuting, shopping, etc.) by bike, many comments are excuses along the lines of “you can’t bike in the rain/winter/Tuesdays/etc.” or “I have kids, so of course I can’t bike to the grocery store.” The reality, as proved by the Finches, is that CAN’T doesn’t exist. It’s simply a choice, and the general public perceives auto use as the most convenient method based on the simplest evaluation of the various factors. A more detailed analysis really does make biking a logical choice, and the emotional response of “it’s just too hard” is more from lack of trying. As a cargo bike user with a 2 year old (just one, so mad props to the Finches), I take any excuse I can get to strap the boy in and go out for an errand. He loves it, and so do I. Slowly but surely, my non-bike-centric wife is even coming around. Hopefully the Finches’ story spreads and more families can realize the joy of non-auto motility.

Rick
Guest
Rick

This mde my day! I love…. LOVE this article!!! Thank you! But, I can’t help the overwhelming desire to contribute to a fund which will buy this beautiful soul a battery assist cargo bike… and maybe some more bungee cords!

Chris
Guest
Chris

Great story, I think I actually saw Emily last summer biking in Ladd’s addition the last time I was in Portland visiting. I live in Austin, TX where both my wife and I have Xtracycles and we ride our 7 year old (and sometimes his friends) on them all the time. I sold my truck (our second car) over 6 years ago. We have been a one car family since then. I ride 10 miles (one way) to work each day on my bike, and I feel the same way as Emily: Biking just makes me happy. it feels good to be on a bike, in such a simple, basic way its hard to explain.

oskarbaanks
Guest
oskarbaanks

One child in the trailer with 4 bags of groceries is a load. Six is a feat of stupendous marvel! I do not know how you do it, but I concede to your superhuman will !

Chrystal
Guest
Chrystal

This is so inspiring, I loved all the pictures of family. It is really great to hear how she was so determined to make it work despite how hard it was in the beginning. What a superwomen!

Andyc
Guest
Andyc

Wowza! Finches, you are completely awe-inspiring! This story should be picked up by every available media outlet. I mean, fer cripes sake! I shall be emailing it to about everybody. Kudos to you, Emily, and your family!

Travis
Guest
Travis

Total hero!

Andrew K
Guest
Andrew K

wow… I am impressed.

Chris
Guest
Chris

Seriously awesome story. My one critique: Help the kids in wearing their helmets properly. They should be a finger width or two above the eyes and relatively level from front to back. Not back on the head like a bonnet.

Elle Bustamante
Guest

Awesome! I just have two on my Mundo but we’re in the process of going car-free. If these guys can do it, so can we! Thanks for the inspiration!

o/o
Guest
o/o

Amazing… I cant imagine hauling around that many kids on bicycle. Tough cookie!

craig harlow
Guest
craig harlow

I saw this mini troop transport rolling by Peninsula Park during the most recent Sunday Parkways, and my faith was reaffirmed.

2wo Wheel
Guest
2wo Wheel

I am not worthy!

Jeff Bernards
Guest
Jeff Bernards

E bike assist would allow her to go farther than 20 miles and she can still pedal her limit of 20 miles for exercise.

KYouell
Guest

So nice to see so many positive comments to Emily’s story. As a mom with 2 kids in a bakfiets I get plenty of stares and comments, except when I ride with Emily & her crew! Then I just nod at the people who are staring and smiling, all asking the same question, “Was that 5 or 6?!?” Much fun.

The only thing I’d like to add, for the benefit of someone out there googling who lands on this story, having a kid with special needs doesn’t stop you from living car-free any more than having a lot of kids does. *YOU* can do this too!

Dave
Guest

I just got to meet Emily this last weekend on a small group ride, riding all over town to different chocolate shops (what a great way to meet a new group of people!) 🙂 We made good use of her on-board stereo, and all had a great time. I would never have guessed she was depressed at one time, she seemed indefatigably cheerful.

Pat
Guest
Pat

Wonderful story – what an inspiration. As for chaos – I come from a large family and have kids of my own. I know from experience that when the oldest start being old enough to ‘baby sit’ suddenly things that were very difficult with kids, simplify tremendously. Emily – your day is coming! cheers!

Shetha
Guest
Shetha

There’s only one disappointing thing about this article, Jonathan. You did not mention Emily’s wonderfully infectious laugh! I suspect the images convey a bit of it with her smile, but it’s clear when she laughs that she contains a contagious kind of happy 🙂

Matt M
Guest
Matt M

RESPECT

Joe
Guest
Joe

RAD MOM!

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

She truly is AWESOME. (and that is coming from a retrograde old grouch)

A.K.
Guest
A.K.

Wow, awesome!

And to think, there are days where I ride with one bidon instead of two because I think “meh, I don’t want that *one lb* of extra weight and I can refill along my route”…

9watts
Guest
9watts

Besides her cheerfulness and boldness, Emily affirms my sense that anything is possible (with a bike). Thanks for being who you are, Emily.

Kate
Guest
Kate

Thank you for sharing this story – especially the not so pretty bits. I think I’m going to have to add bungee cords to my bags too. 🙂 We are from Sacramento which is not nearly as bike friendly as Portland but I find happiness in my bike (a longtail cargo Yuba) too. It can be done. Thanks for the inspiration to keep going.

Unit
Guest
Unit

Helmets off to you Emily!

Lindsay
Guest

Wow- amazing and inspiring- what an awesome mum!

Sunny
Guest
Sunny

I’m thinking the depression has partly to do with people being confined in “cages” like circus animals not allowed to interact or socialize with the outside world. I have a more connected feeling with the community when I’m on my bike. or motorcycle. or convertible.

Jessica Roberts
Guest
Jessica Roberts

Can you please stop speculating about her family income? It’s really none of your business.

Zach
I’m sorry, but my car and bike together probably cost less than one half of her setup. With a neurologist as a husband, her family income is likely more than $200k/year, and she might not have to produce any income for the house. More power to her, but this is atypical, and it would not be easy for somebody with lower income of a single parent to pull this off. It would be possible, but far more difficult
I’d also like to know the breakdown between how often family errands are run by bike and how often they are run in her husband’s car – not that I think she should live up to some standard of purity, but because it would be useful for the rest of us to know to what extent she can pull this off on a day-in-day out basis.
Recommended 0

Mei
Guest
Mei

I remember a story about a mom who had to bring large family on the bus everyday in the city (baby carriage and all), and I thought her endurance was wonderful–though I know she desperately wanted to be able to afford a car. For the poor, this is a fact of life for many moms. I do salute Emily for have 6 children, especially in a society that looks down on that. We have a large family as well and after our second, people were quite rude about any pregnancy. It was nice to read about another big family.

Sunny
Guest
Sunny

There’s a guy over by Lents park that can build one of these for you for a few hundred. I bought one his bikes for a 100. It’s awesome.

Evan
Guest
Evan

Interesting to read the comments of the naysayers on this. How is it that our society now considers a car a necessity but a bicycle a luxury? There are a lot of people out there who may not ride with such an admirable load, but they do ride in conditions much worse than those mentioned above as reasons not to ride. We don’t see them because we choose not to see them – the homeless, the very poor, migrant laborers and others. And some of them do indeed carry quite a bit of stuff on their bikes.
I have a pretty expensive bike for a commuter, but our work intern was given a Huffy that actually has decent equipment and it meets her needs just as well.
If all the people who say they can’t ride where they live were to start riding regularly, even without any physical improvements it would become safer to ride there because people would anticipate the presence of bicycles. We never question whether or not we should build new roads or add to them for cars, often at the expense of other modes. There is always room for improvement of course, but Portland has done a heck of a job assuming people will ride and for those areas that assumption has been built into the system, look what happened. Bikes galore!

Emily Finch
Guest
Emily Finch

I am blown away by all the positive comments. Thank you. I’d like to respond to some of the comments/questions individually but it might take me a while as I am also trying to convince my two year old that she really needs a nap right now. Thank you, Jonathan, for taking the time to hang with us on our trip to OMSI!

Todd Edelman, Slow Factory
Guest

I wish someone would help her with fitting those helmets correctly. Has anyone noticed? I am pro-choice on helmets – also for kids – but some of these are so badly adjusted that they are definitely worse than wearing nothing.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Guest

Please note: I have decided to delete some of the comments being made that are getting into Emily’s family planning and related issues around population. I don’t want to minimize that issue; but I also don’t want to have that debate dominate this comment thread. I also know that it’s difficult for people to remain nice to others around such a heated topic.

As always, please contact me if you feel a specific comment is insensitive/mean.

I hope everyone understands. That’s just how things work around here. Thanks.

Ethan
Guest
Ethan

It always makes me smile when I see Emily roll by. I do have to admit that it never crossed my mind that those were all her kids until today’s article.

Esther
Guest
Esther

Hats off to this family and Emily for making it work. Wow! I see them around town all the time (passed them in Hollywood the other morning) and am always in awe. Thank you for being such a positive role model, Emily!

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

ha! Try getting those kids to do that in 5-7 years when they start to learn the alternatives. Novel fun for awhile I guess.

Kasandra
Guest
Kasandra

Amazing story. Thanks to Emily for being fabulous and to Jonathan for bringing us such inspiring stories.

craig harlow
Guest
craig harlow

To those who think that a cargo bike set-up like this is only for the well-to-do…

The ongoing costs–which are the ones that really matter–the result from replacing a car with a bike, are a mere fraction of what an individual car-owner spends, including depreciation, insurance, fuel, repairs, maintenance, licensing, storage/parking, higher health care bills (medical AND mental)…

…not to mention the costs that we are all burdened with by an individual’s car use: road construction/repair/maintenance, air-quality and resulting public health (and cleanup) costs, obesity and resulting public health costs, mental disorders and resulting public health costs, social dissocation, etc., etc., etc.

Tavia
Guest
Tavia

Good for her, but it looks kind of dangerous to me. There are too many distracted drivers out there and drivers who are even aggressive toward cyclists. I’d be way too nervous about my kids’ safety to do something like this, even in a city with a ton of bike lanes. I’ve heard of too many cyclists being hit.

Zaphod
Guest

First, hey this is solid, impressive and lovely.

I find myself in a car-free universe with children and I cannot increase my expenses. And, more importantly, I don’t want to. Having such perceived “luxury” does not equate to happiness, at all. And being in an automobile may be comfortable but it’s at significant sacrifice for me personally. The lethargic feeling after just sitting… I can’t do it. I’m not at all advocating for others but instead simply sharing my experience. Truly being outside whether I’m in the mood or not connects me with this world. I’ll take living over comfort any day.

HAL9000
Guest
HAL9000

This lady is amazing. She is humanizing our city.

I would rather live in a city with a thousand Emily’s than not! And, as much as my friends will ostracize me for this, bring on the brats! Nothing like raising a new generation of people who think biking is normal.

Richard Allan
Guest
Richard Allan

“In the end, my bike just brings me happiness.”

Thanks, Emily. And thank you, Jonathan. It doesn’t get any more basic than choosing to live in a way that makes you happy.

Sunny
Guest
Sunny

“I sometimes feel like I’m not giving the kids enough. I can’t just pile them in the car and go to the coast. We just don’t do stuff like that.”

There are wonderful beaches on the Columbia river along the marine drive bike path. As a kid, I wouldn’t care if it was the coast or not — as long as there was sand and water.