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Here’s how I’ve carried my kids by bike for the past 10 years

Posted by on February 13th, 2018 at 9:36 am

The boys and I at the Fiets of Parenthood event in 2012.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

The first step to biking with kids often starts with a question: How do you carry them?

I’ve had several family bikes over the years, with some overlap because redundancy is awesome if you have room to store it. I’ve since learned about bikes that work for babies through big kids, but I liken my multi-bike journey to the car seat progression many families follow: infant car seat to convertible car seat to booster seat. Even though some of those seats aren’t used for a long time, everything feels like an eternity when it’s baby-related and seems well worth it.

By sharing what has worked for my family, I hope it’ll help make carrying kids easier for you. Below is the progression of our bike set-up journey over the past 10 years…

One-year old

With Elvis at Viva Bike Vegas 2008.

My only exposure to kids on bikes before becoming a parent was while visiting family in the Netherlands. My cousins put their nine-month-old babies in Bobike Mini front seats so I knew that’s what I would one day do, too. I had never noticed babies or small kids on bikes in America and didn’t think to look for other options. I found a new Bobike Mini on eBay and it wouldn’t fit on my beach cruiser, but it fit on an old two-sizes-too-big beach cruiser collecting dust in the garage so that was my first family bike. The Bobike website said to start at age one (I figured the American requirement for a helmet necessitated the extra three months of neck strength) so that’s what I did. We both loved it and rode like this for six months. Guess where we lived back then:

18-month old

Biking and swimming were easy. Walking? Not so much.

We moved to Seattle and I wanted gears for the hills. And a bike that fit me. And hand brakes! It was time to move beyond the beach cruiser. So I got an eight-speed city bike from the neighborhood bike shop and moved the Bobike Mini over to it. That bike stayed with me through a dozen iterations over seven years, some of which I’ll detail below. But for one year it was just me and the toddler in the front seat.

Two-year old and 10-week old

Baby in car seat, in trailer.

Seattle was the most bike-friendly city in which I’d lived to date. I’d gotten hooked on not needing the car and didn’t want to give up biking for a year when the second baby came. This was a tiring (for me) toddler age for using the bus so I didn’t like that as my only other option. Initially I couldn’t find anything online about putting a baby under one on a bike, but I kept looking as labor loomed and I finally found one article written by a bike racer who put her baby in a car seat in a trailer. I found a trailer on Craigslist and when I determined the baby had sufficient core strength, I stuck him in and he loved it. This was at 10 weeks old, and I know some people start earlier (and some later), but even with a text book home HypnoBirth I didn’t want to put my butt on a bike before 10 weeks postpartum. This was our ride for a year.

Three-year old and one-year old

Two toddlers on a city bike.

Once the baby hit a year, I buckled him into a helmet, put him in the front Bobike Mini, and ordered a rear Bobike Maxi for the three-year old. I loved the small footprint of the bike, that it fit on the bus (though at 50 pounds it was a bear to heft up to the rack), and as I later learned to appreciate and greatly missed, my body kept the siblings physically separated. Twice I had longer stems put on the bike to accommodate lengthening toddler legs.

Also at this point I also found a cheap double trailer on Craigslist and used that as a backup, hooked behind my old road bike I previously hadn’t liked riding.

Double trailers are great for sharing snacks and naps.

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Four-year old and two-year old

Our first day on the cargo bike, six years ago.

Years into my family bike life I learned about cargo bikes and knew at some point I’d want a Surly Big Dummy longtail (I had two friends with two kids each and Big Dummies). I found the cargo bike liberating. No more wondering how to fit both kids and stuff onto the bike (although it was fun to find creative ways to make everything fit back in the day). And to have the front of the bike all to myself and be able to stand in the pedals to climb hills! I started with the two-and-a-half-year old in a Yepp seat at the back of the bike and the four-year old holding handle bars attached to my seat post. Later when the little guy outgrew the Yepp seat I got a Xtracycle Hooptie rollcage to give them both something to hold onto, and that’s how we still roll now.

Five-year old and three-year old

Engine-Engine-Engine is a neat way to carry three kids with a regular bike.

I added a used trailer bike to my fleet. To this I attached the double trailer and my five-year old dubbed it “Engine-Engine-Engine.” We mostly used it as a novelty thing because it was heavy! As a neighbor once said, “It’s really more like Engine-Anchor-Anchor,” but it was useful when friends visited because I could carry three kids with it and let the friend use my Big Dummy for whatever kids were left.

One year later I replaced the seat-post-mounting trailer bike with a more stable one that attaches to a rear rack (also used), the little kid outgrew the front seat of the city bike so it became a one-kid toter, our double trailer was stolen (unlocked in the carport), and I invested in the kids’ first brand new bikes (Islabikes from the Portland warehouse).

Eight-year old and six-year old

Tandem plus trailer bike (and camping gear).

Our local tandem shop had a bike that fit me on consignment and it was too tempting to pass up. At one point I thought we’d graduate from the cargo bike to a tandem plus trailer bike, but my timing was such that the kids were riding their own bikes too much by the time I found the tandem. However, it was five pounds lighter than the Big Dummy so even though there wasn’t as much help with pedaling as I would have liked, it made bike camping a tiny bit easier. I’m not sure what the future holds for the tandem, but I really like riding it with just one kid and no camping gear. I think it could be fun for the middle school commute next year. Three minutes into my test ride the day I met the bike a guy leaned out his car window to laugh and shout, “You lost someone off the back!” which is probably the most important thing to be prepared for with tandem bikes.

Ten-year old and eight-year old (now)

Kids and bikes on my bike headed to a Kidical Mass ride in 2015.

The kids are mostly on their own bikes these days, their third Islabikes each. I always take the cargo bike along just in case one or both needs a lift or I spot a free bookcase on the side of the road. For Sunday’s Worst Day of the Year Ride (my recap here) I brought my cargo bike so I could carry a friend’s kid whose bike was in the shop. My eight-year old crashed as we pulled into the rest stop (but what better place to crash than in front of a cookie sundae bar?) so I finished the ride toting two kids and one bike (longtail cargo bikes are especially good at hauling kids and bikes at the same time). Heading home after second lunch, my eight-year old and our nine-year-old house guest both tired out so I toted them and their bikes the last five miles.

Enough about us, what about you? What works well for your family?

We’d love to see your set-ups. Please send a photo and brief description to me before Monday (2/19) at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com. If we hear from enough of you we’ll feature them in the column next week.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

Browse past Family Biking posts here.

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38 Comments
  • John Liu February 13, 2018 at 9:54 am

    Very interesting! Question – what do you think about front-loader bikes (baekfiets) and what do you think about e-bikes, for a family vehicle?

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    • Chris I February 13, 2018 at 10:32 am

      They are the ultimate in convenience for kid hauling, and it is nice to have them in front of you. Drawback is that they are heavy, hard to park, and hard to transport. When unloaded, a longtail rides like a normal bike. So if you have the space, and ride mostly with your kids or loads, consider a bakfiet. If you “ride empty” more often, a longtail might be better.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 12:44 pm

      I love bakfietsen! Before the days of hill-friendly box bikes (with e-assists to get up and nice strong brakes for coming down) I made a point of renting and borrowing bakfietsen whenever we visited flat cities. It’s wonderful to have the kids right up front and boxes/buckets are terrific for tossing cargo into and attaching weather shields to. If I could own two cargo bikes I would definitely want me current longtail plus a bakfiets. E-bikes (both regular e-bikes and cargo e-bikes) make all the difference for many family biking setups, too! I didn’t know about e-bikes when I started biking with kids, but if I were to start up today, I’d want one for sure. I used an e-bakfiets for a week-long visit to Portland a year ago and it was soooooo wonderful!

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      • Alex Reedin February 13, 2018 at 1:51 pm

        My experience is that electric box-bikes are amazing for younger children (they fit better in the box, the potential for weather protection is of more benefit because they are more prone to meltdowns, they’re not very good at biking on their own, etc.) My kids are 2 and 4 so I don’t have older-kid experience, but I would guess that box-bikes, while still useful up to age 12 or so, slowly find their advantages outweighed by their disadvantages in more and more situations.

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  • Gary February 13, 2018 at 10:28 am

    So great, thanks for sharing! I currently have a 26 m.o. about to outgrow his rear-rack-mounted child seat, so this is helpful. (Although I wish I had it a couple years ago when I was trying to convince my s.o. to let me mount a car seat to a trailer!)

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  • J_R February 13, 2018 at 10:33 am

    We started our kids in a trailer at 5 months strapped in their car seats. We ditched the car seats at about 18 months but rode in the trailer. They graduated to the back of a tandem with child stoker kit and backrest with dual chest straps at age 2 1/2. We also used a Burley Piccolo (far superior to any other trailer bike option because of the mounting attachment) on the back of the tandem for two kids.

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  • B. Carfree February 13, 2018 at 10:41 am

    This post is a joy for me to read. When my son was born long ago (he’s 27 now), a friend who grew up in the Netherlands gave us one of those front seats. We decided against using it and passed it on. Instead, we did a lot of walking those first two years. (I often backpacked with a 75 pound pack so that the rest of the group could carry little or nothing, so a 30 pound child wasn’t a big deal.) One day the husband of one of my wife’s co-workers saw my wife pulling a little red wagon with our son in it (and the collection of plant debris he invariably collected) and, not recognizing her, felt pity for the homeless woman and child he thought he was seeing.

    When my son was three, we got one of those trailer bikes. When he got distracted and nearly fell under it, I decided we should look for something better. Fortunately, something better rode past my house every day in the form of a home-made rear-steer triple with a child’s crank, all made from discarded bikes that had been cut and welded. The person riding it, now a dear friend, took our old one-speed Huffy tandem and made it a rear-steer with a child’s crank and that became our town bike for the next seven years. You get some funny looks when the child is riding captain on a tandem and has his arms folded across his chest.

    We kept the trailer bike for a while since it was convenient for transporting friends. A rear-steer tandem with a trailer bike plus a trailer makes for lots of comments from the peanut gallery. Eventually, a family with two children borrowed the trailer bike and since their need for it was far greater than ours, it became theirs.

    For longer rides, we were gifted a child’s crank for the custom tandem we had purchased just two years before our son was born. (We met the person who gave it to us on the bike polo field; yes we played on grass. He played on a tandem with his ten-year-old son riding stoker and handling the mallet. Fun times.) We now have that child’s crank back on that tandem and have added a new trailer bike, the kind that attaches to a rack, and use it daily to pick up our granddaughters at preschool. The cycle is continuing into the next generation.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 12:50 pm

      Oh, this is all wonderful! And wow, I haven’t seen (nor previously heard of) a rear steer tandem other than the Kidz Tandem once at Clever Cycles and semi-recumbent tandems like the Counterpoint Opus. Thanks for sharing your story!

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      • Eric Leifsdad February 14, 2018 at 10:11 am

        Sounds like an onderwater. The hase pino or circe morpheus half-recumbent also seems like a good setup for a larger stoker/anchor.

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  • John Liu February 13, 2018 at 10:42 am

    Hey Madi, where do you get the windshield shown in the first photo?

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 12:53 pm

      Both Bobike and Yepp (now Thule, I think?) make windshields that go with their front seats. I’m not sure how easy it is to connect one to a different brand. It made all the difference for me being able to ride in drizzle with a happy front passenger and even go downhill at a moderate speed. However, you will need to get used to toddlers pointing at your bike and shouting, “Motorcycle!” That bugged me for a while, but I eventually came to realize it’s cool to be mistaken for a motorcycle by a toddler.

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  • Spiffy February 13, 2018 at 10:50 am

    those all seem like the best options… options that a lot of people couldn’t afford… you’ve bought a lot of things in which to carry your children: baby seat, geared bike, single trailer, toddler seat, double trailer, cargo bike, another baby seat, trail-a-bike, another trail-a-bike,

    I only have 1, so I didn’t need to have multiple options at once… that cuts the cost a lot…

    here’s my list, which isn’t so intimidating:

    I already had a double-seat trailer ($20 on craigslist) that I had used for dogs and that became my child’s bicycle transportation until they were 5… I could also bring a friend’s kid along… then they were on a trail-a-bike ($35 at yard sale, which we carried home in the trailer with the kid) until they were almost 9 (no desire to learn before that, that’s another topic), at which point they got their own real bike to ride, which is where they are now… I never had to change my geared bike I already had…

    that’s basically an entire childhood via bicycle for $100 if you’re frugal… I imagine almost double that for 2 kids…

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 1:01 pm

      Thank you for pointing this out! Seattle and Portland both have great markets of used gear of all sorts and I like to point out when I get stuff used. There are definitely ways to build affordable family bikes and I hope not to put anyone off by inadvertently implying brand new big bikes are the only way to go.

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    • Carrie February 13, 2018 at 4:38 pm

      However, Spiffy, she’s not spending money on car insurance, gas, parking, registration, car payments, etc. So economically from a transportation standpoint she’s probably out ahead (even figuring in more cold/wet clothing). And also probably out ahead from a health and wellness standpoint.

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  • Dave February 13, 2018 at 10:54 am

    I see………..lucky children!

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  • Phil Richman February 13, 2018 at 11:32 am

    I used the Engine/Engine/Engine mode too many years ago. 4 1/2 years ago got an e-assisted Big Dummy from Splendid. My kids 8 & 12 at the time rode on the back for a couple of years until the oldest was 14. Now she is 17, drives, cycles at the gym and generally tells me I ruined biking for her. Unbeknownst to me she was teased by her friends at the time. The 13 year old hasn’t been on the BD for a while and I suspect he’d refuse. My biggest regret is not doing the Isla Bike thing for my kids. I continue to believe they’ll appreciate their experiences some day, but Portland, especially SW Portland is not a bike friendly place. I relish the day it becomes so.

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    • Chris I February 13, 2018 at 12:36 pm

      Don’t lose hope, yet. Kids will sometimes return to activities they said they “hated” in their teenage years when they become adults. Teenagers are pretty terrible, in general.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 1:04 pm

      Ugh, teenagers! I worry about my kids growing into a bike-averse teens which is why I’m always quick (maybe too quick) to carry them and their bikes if they get tired or grumpy. The Islabikes might be as much for me as for them, since they’re so light to carry around with the Big Dummy.

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    • Greg Spencer February 14, 2018 at 12:33 pm

      Some people we met, living car-free except for out-of-town excursions, are going through this with their oldest child. School friends tease him because the family has no car, he has no choice but to bike or walk to school (no school bus option, I guess) and he needs to beg rides to join in extracurricular activities. In most towns in the US, car-free living entails a certain sacrifice in comfort and convenience — and status in some eyes. Cities need to make cycling an attractive choice for average people.

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  • jennie cambier February 13, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    My husband and I work full time and bike commute full time. We also have 2 kids age 2 and 4, who we take turns transporting via a trailer to daycare. We leave the trailer at daycare which gives us the pickup/drop off flexibility. I’d love to hear more about every day bike commuting solutions with kids that allow you to share pick up/drop off with a partner, espeically as they get older. Ours will age out of the trailer pretty quick, and I am not excited about having to buy 2 long tail set ups!

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 1:16 pm

      Trailers are so nice for sharing between bikes like that! There are some other modular options out there (as well as trailer with higher weight limits, like Wike adaptive trailers). My Engine-Engine-Engine setup is easy to swap to different bikes, though long and heavy. My current trailer bike is a Burley Piccolo that connects to a Burley Moose rack and while pricier and necessitating a bike that can accommodate a rack, it’s very stable (and you can order a second rack for the second bike). You have to go to Canada to get these now, but Adams make a tandem trail-a-bike. It’s heavy and I wasn’t strong enough to ride with one (crashed into a rose bush), but I know some small moms who are able! This is on the pricier side, but my original plan before getting the cargo bike was to couple a kid bike behind mine with a FollowMe Tandem coupler from Clever Cycles which fits even with a rear kid seat on the bike. But then you would need two of those, and a rear seat that’s easy to move from bike to bike (which probably means owning two mounts for it). This isn’t made anymore, but the Chariot SideCarrier rides alongside the bike so you could fit a trailer bike behind. I hope this helps and I’ll come back if I think of other options.

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    • mikeybikey February 13, 2018 at 1:48 pm

      jennie, my spouse and I share the daily pickup and drop off and we have a 3yr old and an almost 5 yr old and I don’t know how it would be possible w/o us having our own bicycles capable of carrying two kids. On occasion if one bike is in the shop, etc. we can make it work by sharing one bike and then using TriMet and/or Biketown. This, of course, is only possible because our home, workplaces and childcare location are all pretty well served by Biketown and TriMet. Hope you figure out a good setup!

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      • jennie cambier February 13, 2018 at 4:45 pm

        Yeah, this is what I’m afraid of. We need an e-assist for our hill, and at $4500 a pop (for say, a mundo spicy curry) we are looking at $9000 to outfit both of us. 🙁 The alternative is putting a bike on the car, taking the kids and parking the car near the last drop off/first pick up location. Basically, the car becomes the trailer. 🙁

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        • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
          Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 4:53 pm

          Hills 🙁 One thing to know: lugging a trailer uphill is a lot harder than having that kid weight up on two wheels with you. If it’s a big hill, you might still be happiest with an e-assist no matter the bike, but it’d be worth experimenting with borrowed/rented variations first.

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        • Esther February 13, 2018 at 11:06 pm

          Jennie, we live up the Alameda Ridge towards Rocky Butte, where the winter east head winds are often worse than the climb up the hill, and have two (9 months and 26 mos) in daycare near downtown and both work downtown. We share an eassist bullitt which climb/ride Soo much less exhausting, and faster. We tried the “taking turns” thing with pickup and drop off for awhile but what worked best was each taking one day, I.e. plan ahead and same person does p/u and d/o, other person rides their own bike. We got the bullitt used for less than 4k and I see them relatively often for sale on CL or the PDX cargo bike gang FB page.

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        • Eric Leifsdad February 14, 2018 at 7:43 am

          Radwagon is only $1600.

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  • gregory byshenk February 13, 2018 at 1:39 pm

    Chris I
    They are the ultimate in convenience for kid hauling, and it is nice to have them in front of you. Drawback is that they are heavy, hard to park, and hard to transport.

    I don’t know if anything like it is available in the US, but Gazelle makes the Cabby, which is a bakfiets with a folding box, making it lighter and easier to park and store.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 1:43 pm

      There are (or at least have been) Cabbies in the US! We rented one for a week in San Diego (from Alternabike, and also one once in LA for a day from Flying Pigeon) and adored it and I found it drove just like a regular bakfiets, but I’ve heard that some people don’t like them as much as regular bakfietsen. I didn’t think to ever fold it and see how quick and easy (or not) that is, though.

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  • ED February 13, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    I have a 16-month-old, we just bought her first helmet yesterday to go with a balance bike that is in the mail, but am dreaming of my own cargo bike setup. Any tips on places to get a used cargo bike in Portland? It seems like there should be a million of them but they only rarely pop up on craigslist.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) February 13, 2018 at 3:02 pm

      Balance bikes are the best! I’ve seen cargo bikes on Craigslist–do you know how to set an alert? (I don’t, but I think one needs to do it with a third-party site or app these days.) If you’re are on Facebook, there are groups that work well for buying and selling bikes of all types. The one Facebook group I know of here is “PDX Cargo Bike Gang” but there are probably more, too! And Splendid Cycles has a “Specials” page with sales on new and sometimes used bikes.

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      • ED February 14, 2018 at 9:42 am

        Thanks Madi!

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    • Chris I February 13, 2018 at 3:20 pm

      The “xtracycle conversion” type bikes are generally the cheapest way to try it out. Keep in mind that the conversion bikes are only rated for 100lbs on the rear. If you can snag a used Big Dummy, Yuba Mundo, etc you are looking at 200lbs.

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    • Greg Spencer February 14, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      That’s not my impression. We picked up a longtail on Craigslist just weeks after moving to Portland 1.5 years ago — a used Kona Ute in near mint condition for $800. We were and still are happy with it. This past summer, we got another Ute on Craigslist, in very good condition, for $600.

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    • Sarah Carrato February 20, 2018 at 6:17 pm

      I have a used Yuba Mundo I need to offload by June. Email me!

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  • Edwin February 13, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    ED, search for “Cargo” in the bike section of Portland CL. Compared to many cities in the US, there are a lot of used options: a couple of box bikes, Yuba mundos, Xtracycles, etc…
    I found that with one kid, a child seat up front works best, up to 3-4 years old.
    With two kids, it is nice to have them in a box bike up front, but that it is a big investment in time and space.
    With three kids, I didn’t bike a lot with all three on there, but occasionally would put two in front in a box bike and one in the back. Or three on the back of a Yuba Mundo. Or one on front and two in back on a Workcycles fr8. That is the bike I have had that is most like a regular bike when there are no kids on it, but it is almost as long as a Yuba Mundo or Big Dummy! And probably several pounds heavier.

    Great article!

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    • ED February 14, 2018 at 9:44 am

      I think it might be a seasonality thing. I was looking on Portland CL over the winter and only finding one to two cargo bikes at a given time, but when I checked yesterday (after having posted of course, d’oh!) there are a ton on the market now. Must be a rush of spring cleaning to make room in the garage for new bikes!

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  • Tim February 14, 2018 at 8:36 am

    So many great options for young families with children. I wish some of these were around when my kid was little. I couldn’t of afforded most of them, but a used trailer would have been a great improvement. I modified a Sears bike seat to be reasonably safe and sturdy.

    Kids who grow up on a bike will grow up to see bikes as normal.

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  • mark smith February 15, 2018 at 7:07 pm

    Only an American could promote such a selfish idea such as a moto only lane. There are moto only lanes everywhere . In between car lanes.

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