I’m going to try something different this week. I’d love to hear from you:
Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.
➤ Read past entries here.
If you don’t bike with your young children, why not?
I’ve often wondered what (or if) my family biking experience would have been like had I lived in Seattle before having kids. I moved to Seattle with an 18-month-old I’d already been biking with for six months on quiet Las Vegas trails and streets. Our Seattle house was one block from Green Lake and its lakeside multi-use path so it was easy to stick to routes that felt sufficiently safe as I explored our new neighborhood. I ever so gradually increased my range, not even discovering the Burke-Gilman Trail, a terrific multi-use path, for months.
But what if I’d been a “strong and fearless” bike commuter zipping through downtown Seattle and elsewhere, used to traveling quickly? I would’ve assumed I’d be adding a baby to that and felt completely intimidated…and quite possibly not biked with my kids for transportation. Although I owned a road bike and was occasionally talked into taking it for rides with fast friends, I mainly got everywhere with my comfy beach cruiser and was used to moving slowly. Back then I considered biking a faster alternative to walking rather than a suitable replacement for driving, and that made sticking a baby on the bike no big deal.
Now I’m curious about your experience. If you don’t bike with your young children, why not? And what resources would help make it easier (either now or in the past, if your children are grown)?
Thanks for reading. Feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.
— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter
Browse past Family Biking posts here.
Get this and other BikePortland posts delivered directly to your inbox.
BikePortland needs your support.
My husband and I were “strong and fearless” riders for literally decades before having kids together. Their daycare is close to our work downtown. We still bike with them, but our routes are radically different. We don’t even ride on the same greenways we used to, sticking to even lower traffic streets, and take the safest possible crossing of a major 4-lane arterial which we otherwise (without kids) ride *on*. Instead of riding Sacramento (greenway) to Sandy (major arterial) to work, we ride Alameda (lower traffic and lower speeds than Sacramento), use the safest possible crossing of Sandy (bike-specific light at 57th), and ride NE Brazee to avoid Tillamook through Hollywood (which is a complete cluster with giant potholes in the skinny door-zone bike lane). Then we dodge all the traffic on Tillamook through Irvington, many of which are running stop signs crossing Tillamook. My god how I wish we had a Sullivan’s Gulch Trail – as it is, with the weather, the weight of the kids, and especially the traffic, biking is only *marginally* better than driving because it saves us some time and money (but is a lot more hassle). I even have free parking at their daycare, so we could drive there and Biketown/bus/streetcar to work. Our principles mostly keep us from doing that (and the fact that hte Biketown stateion is .5 mile away), but less motivated parents would surely drive.
This is exactly my experience. Our routes changed drastically and avoid many crossings that I’d never thought twice about. The gaps in our network appear magically once a kid is with you.
Our 4 year old is on the road with me for errands on the weekend but we don’t feel great as density increases without the necessary improvements to the bike infrastructure. He’s physically capable of riding the distance to and from his preschool but downtown is a no-go. The Green Loop would potentially solve this but he’ll be riding on his own before that happens.
I have an odd question for you: At what age do you think kids are “ready” to bike on their own all over town, unguided by their parents or older siblings?
I started when I was 8 or so in my community of 50,000, but even then most kids in my neighborhood wouldn’t dare or weren’t allowed to by their parents (mine were easy-going, or maybe negligent, depending upon your point of view.)
Here in Greensboro (pop 288,000) I see some kids as young as 10 or so riding by themselves around town, black, Hispanic, and white, sometimes on LimeBikes, but not that many.
I have let my kids bike on their own from about 8/9. My youngest is 10 now and is very practiced in solo biking. As I kid, I biked around portland as soon as I could bike! But like most, probably, I started close to home and gradually increased my range.
I DON’T KNOW! So this is going to be an ask/answer post very soon 🙂 Ideally cities are building streets to work for ages 8-80 (some say 8-88), but I don’t think many of our streets are there yet. My kids are 8 and 10 and we still bike everywhere together, and they’ve only just started getting a bit ahead of me (actually, only the littler bolder one does) and I hope to grow that distance more and more.
I think ours will be making the trip to kindergarten on his own some of the time but that’s a five block journey with a signalized pedestrian crossing. I think his radius will increase daily and I’m hopeful that he’ll be able to navigate the bike and transit networks around age ten. It seems to me that kids that are exposed to the city daily pick up a lot of the necessary skills on their own, parents are really there to provide the guidance about safety and fill in the gaps.
My daughter was 11 when I first let her bike home about one mile from soccer practice. And yes, I secretly followed her and did a story about it – https://bikeportland.org/2013/11/05/when-a-child-rides-alone-a-test-of-our-kids-and-our-streets-96604
Oldest child is now 35… We let her ride her bike to school when she was in kindergarten. She’d been riding w/o training wheels since she was 4. Granted the school was only 1/2 mile away, and only on neighborhood streets. In today’s environment, I am pretty sure we’d have been hauled in for endangerment. As it was, other parent did comment. And, TODAY, I wouldn’t let her ride to school, because everyone else drives their children to school, and I don’t even like walking in my own neighborhood in the afternoon when school lets out.
I was allowed to ride in the city in Los Angeles at 11.
I (obviously) have been a family biker for a long time, but on my own, I rarely do it anymore. Between an older kid who has an early school pickup, and younger one who really needs her naps at home, and series of longtail bikes that never quite fit, I’m mostly out. We take the whole family out on my husband’s long tail, but that’s a rarity in the cooler months.
I’m lucky in that I fit the smallest size of most bikes (my Big Dummy is at 16″) but I’ve noticed there are more options for shorter riders now — finally! When mine were younger it was exhausting to carry them both and work around nap schedules so I know how it is 🙁 I mean, it’s all a blur, but I vaguely remember some of it.
Let Oregon pass something like Utah’s “free-range parenting” law. Sometimes conservative states have a jump on liberal Oregon when it comes to stuff like wildlands preservation (Idaho), and giving kids a chance to self discover (Utah).
Living in SW the best we are able to do is use the ebike and double trailer as that’s the only way to take two kids to daycare while climbing a couple hundred feet in elevation. That said there really aren’t “alternate” routes and the limited options are all terrible.
Infrastructure improvements are the only thing that will make this better. The options right now are either taking the lane with a 30 MPH speed limit (and lots of hills) or riding a (somewhat flatter) high crash corridor with a 40 MPH speed limit and buffered bike lanes. There’s a reason we drive so much as a family.
I have an 18-month-old and fall right in the “interested but not quite motivated” category. So, why not? Partly it’s steep learning curve and costs just for the first ride: we’d need to upgrade our bikes and/or buy a trailer for her, which seems like a big investment. I’m not sure how much biking would replace walking or driving for us. Our daughter doesn’t love being confined in the stroller or the car seat, so walking is sometimes on her own or carried, and car trips are at least shorter in duration than stroller or bike seat. We don’t have a ton of local destinations that would benefit from a bike, but I would like to change that come fall when she will start preschool a few miles away. I’ve thought through the route and have cobbled together something I think would feel safe, if indirect, but we’ll see if we get over the initial investment barrier, can her her comfortable in a bike seat or trailer, and can build a bike commute habit before the cold winter weather sets in. Honestly, it’s mostly momentum that keeps us from biking–it’s relatively easy to keep doing the same thing, which is driving. I gotta say it’s darn convenient having a warm, dry car that can quickly get us where we need to go, and quickly get us back home if an outing goes to pieces, and that we don’t need extra gear or clothing for.
You might be surprised. My kid is the same age and is way more content in the bike trailer than the stroller or carseat. Maybe borrow a trailer and give it a whirl!
I am hopeful that she might enjoy the bike trailer more than a car seat or stroller! She is very interested in other people’s bike trailers when we see them at the park, and would happily climb in to check them out. Though she is also interested in everyone else’s strollers too, which hasn’t increased her interest in her own.
I bike with my kids (5 and almost 3) but it requires some creativity in terms of the gear, which streets to use, how to persuade them not to use the car (which we do not during the week), and it is really hard to create a situation where your daycare, work and home are all within something like 5 miles of a distance because density is so low here. If I had not been a passionate bike rider before having kids, we would probably not bike with our children. And even so, it was really hard to get a house and daycare within bikeable distance (it is getting easier with the older one in Kindergarten, which is nearby).
I also sometimes ride with my older child. We stick to bike boulevards / greenways or neighborhood roads that are not busy, but still, almost every time we bike she is intimidated by a person driving their car. Bike boulevards and greenways are fine for adult commuters, but they are in their current state inadequate for children, especially younger ones; and don’t get me started about the other bike infrastructure.
But the problem is more systemic than just bike infrastructure. For instance, trucks (like the Ford F-150) are especially frighting for children, and they become more and more popular. And there is no way that these will be regulated in Oregon or Portland.
OK, enough venting — my point is, biking with kids is doable in Portland, but involves a lot of ifs and planning. And that are in my view reasons why a lot of parents do not bike with their kids.
Sometimes it’s a challenge with very young kids…the smaller the child, the more stuff you need to carry. Several years ago when my girls were little, I used a trailer. My oldest loved it but her younger sister didn’t. She would cry and fuss and rebelled against riding in it. I ended up getting a rear rack kid seat and using the trailer to haul the stuff. (The only downside with the kid seat is the weather…I found it easier to put a kid in a trailer with a blanket and snap the cover on to keep the rain off.) I have a lot of fond memories tooling around Portland with my girls and (15 plus years ago) felt like drivers would slow down and give more space when passing. I’m not sure Portland drivers are as courteous today.
No trails on the West side to ride with them. And lack of safe routes for them.
How far west?
Naito is far enough west for there to be problems, especially if you head south (or even north.)
I have an 11 year old. She was in a sidecar as a young kid (18 months) and eventually graduated to a trail-a-bike. She has been walking to school since pre-school, and she walks to and from school by herself this year. Unfortunately, she has been riding less. We had a bad experience on a greenway with someone following behind us and honking and she was very rattled. I had her out a couple of weeks ago and she took a spill, so we are gradually working on the confidence-building. Unfortunately, it is the poor infrastructure that limits our riding the most. We live in Overlook, and we have good infrastructure heading north, but it falls apart at busy roads like Roda Parks and Lombard. Many of the places we WANT to go are east or south, and the routes are horrible- poor signage, indirect routes, big safety gaps in the network leaving us no safe way to cross arterials, or undersized bike lanes. One of the biggest improvements PBOT could make is to complete the bike lanes on Skidmore between Michigan and 7th. This would connect destinations on North Killingsworth, Interstate, Mississippi, Williams, MLK and Alberta with a direct route that safely crosses I-5, Williams and MLK and provides dedicated space for bikes. The protected bike lanes on Skidmore from Interstate to Michigan are great- they are easy to use, they don’t rely on ambiguous rules or complicated routes; they just need to be extended. The alternative route, Going Greenway west of 7th, is the perfect example of what does not work for a kid. The route is literally incomprehensible (by me, at least), the crossing are super sketchy, and you wind up getting bullied by cars because you don’t have a dedicated space to ride/not enough sharrows and no stop bars.
I ride with my kid every day to daycare, drop her off and continue to the office. I selected a daycare with a bike commute that I’d feel safe doing. With that said, my mind was BLOWN by how vulnerable I felt during the first rainy, dark rides with a baby in the trailer (on streets that I previously would have said had safe bike routes). That said, I’ve been at it for an entire fall/winter/spring, and I wouldn’t trade it. We run most of our errands with our daughter by bike now — and actually bike more than we did pre-kid because she likes the ride and we like the exercise. I feel lucky to live in a part of town with good bike infrastructure that makes riding possible. I think safe infrastructure really is the biggest impediment (and well-meaning questions from nervous grandparents).
There is not an adequate network of low-stress bicycle routes, riding on the west side of the Willamette River is especially stressful. Drivers drive too fast and too aggressively that without protected bike lanes, riding with cars is too scary.
It comes down to safety. The bike lanes around town are OK for me, but with my 2 kids it’s too hard to find safe routes. The city has grown and NE PDX has become incredibly dense, but our bicycle infrastructure hasn’t grown to keep up. A perfect example is Vancouver/Williams. Very few kids ride bikes on two of Portland’s main cycling thoroughfares because it simply isn’t safe.
Rodney Street would be a suitable alternative for kids if only it had signalized crossings instead of stop signs at streets like Skidmore, Shaver, Fremont, Russell, the list goes on.
I commute with our kids, 2 and 3, most days. It definitely shines a light on how broken our infrastructure and attitudes are around cars. There are no real places where bikes are given priority in Portland. Even on neighborhood greenways and designated bike routes the car is still king. I use SE 33rd/34th to go from Clinton to Ankeny to drop my kids at daycare. My bike has electric assist so I’m usually going 15+ miles an hour but still, at least once a month, I get yelled/honked/engine revved at by some impatient jerk who wants to pass. It’s maddening that we can’t get real bike priority routes around town. Diverters on every neighborhood greenway every four blocks are desperately needed. And more designated N/S routes are also desperately needed. The 20s bikeway is nice in many respects but some of the design decisions simply don’t work with a bakfiets. Lame.
I love to hate 34th… designated bike route but drivers will pass you dangerously the soonest intersection and cut you off… then you’re breathing their exhaust the entire way because it’s not any faster in a car due to the traffic lights…
My wife takes my 2 (soon to be 3) kids w/ an e-bike+trailer along vancouver/williams and along the waterfront every day. Sometimes on the rack and sometimes in the trailer. However, once the kids start biking themselves it feels like route selection will be quite challenging. I definitely get the route selection conversation that’s going on here
Time. I drop kids off at two different schools in Southeast and work downtown. Even employers who say they’re flexible and you can totally work from home if you need to: no. So the extra twenty minutes in the morning and evening make a difference. I bought the infrastructure (trailer, green front seat, all kinds of little kid bikes) to make it work for the first few years. And I’ve barely used it.
I still think of myself as a bike commuter. Maybe in a few years.
I live in New York with two children (6 and 4) and confess to rarely biking en famille. The schools and other errand destinations are too close by (within 1/4 mile) for bicycling to save time over walking, and my parents are too far away (15 miles) to make biking a reasonable alternative to the subway. Bicycles are best for going to the park down by the Hudson River which is a little far from the subway, but we do that maybe 3x per year.
my greatest obstacle was when they were under 1 year old… I didn’t bike anywhere with them at that time due to the fear of criminal penalties…
after that there was no obstruction… other than getting the kid to want to bike… they were fine being trailered around while other kids in our group rode their own bikes years earlier…
I find that the extra time that it takes us to get in is actually the favorite part of my day. Having a conversation about all of the things that we see has been an unexpected highlight of our relationship. I wouldn’t miss it for any amount of convenience.
Even without children to take along and keep safe, I still choose NE Skidmore over NE Going about 1/3 of the time. It seems that drivers on average behave better in a network of alternating stop and go than they do at a greenway crossing. Why?
Diverters. A greenway without frequent diverters is a cruel joke.
The VRU law needs teeth. The current interpretation of the law makes it pointless. It’s sort of a John Woo Torture Memo thing. No organ failure, no torture. No dead people, no VRU infraction.
What kind of person harasses a kid on a bike?
I bike all the time with my 3 year old, and as soon as the baby is a few months older she’ll join us as well. However there are two things that are serious obstacles I had to overcome: cost investment and safety.
My “minivan” is a serious investment, a few grand. have a longtail because I didn’t feel comfortable towing a trailer below drivers’ eye level (even though just as many say that seats on the back are a serious fall hazard). In preparation of adding kid 2 to the bike I recently added an e-assist, because the entire set-up is incredibly heavy and I was so s l o w.
Safety… Being a woman with a toddler in tow is no guarantee that drivers will give you a wide berth or be nice to you. One of my scariest connections is Alberta Street over I-5. I get honked at, zoomed past, and all sorts of dangerous behavior as I take the lane for like 100 feet. Is it any wonder that people would hesitate to subject their children to that? Infrastructure is important, the more I am away from traffic the safer and more secure I feel.
Our family with kids doesn’t bike because we don’t own any bikes. We live downtown without a car, so walking and transit allows us to get most things done. We may get a bike with kid gear at some point, but our apartment is small so we’d have to store it outside and there have been thefts from the racks in our area. That plus the minimal bike infrastructure downtown keeps us without bikes for the time being.
A folding xtracycle cargo node or the stand-up compact bike friday haul-a-day perhaps? Maybe tern gsd?
My children are 20 and 18 now, but having grown up in Portland as a “fast” rider, I had no hesitance in transporting my children by bike and thereby teaching them how to bike in traffic safely. As toddlers they rode in a trailer typically between N and NW portland via the Broadway bridge and Glisan/Everett. I embraced the challenge of keeping up with traffic on Glisan (Everett was easy to ride with traffic. As a driver I am frustrated with the addition of a bike path on that street and feel extremely vulnerable on my bicycle, passing all those cars stuck in the traffic.).
From the trailer, they graduated to a tag-a-long. My youngest loved riding with me on the tag-a-long, but is just now feeling confident enough to bike out of our NoPo neighborhood. In the meantime, she has become a master at navigating Trimet. My older daughter was confident riding downtown to school and back after I rode with her there a time or two. Neither of them have felt the need to get a drivers license to get around Portland. My oldest got her license after going to a small town for college and realizing that she was a better driver than any of her friends and would rather be driving when she was in a car. My youngest wants to do a cross country trip by car with a friend and is just learning now at 18.
If we wait for the bicycle infrastructure in Portland to to be safe enough everywhere to bike with our kids, sadly we’ll never get there! I consider myself an “interested but concerned” bicyclist and SLOW bicyclist to boot. I feel pretty comfortable biking most places in Portland with my kids. If you slow things down and bike in numbers I don’t think biking with kids is nearly as scary. I have 3 kids (15, 12, and 9 yrs old). When they were younger and their schools were closer to my work, we would oftentimes have a 5 bike peloton heading downtown on our daily commute. These days, my youngest and I bike commute together. As a result of having older siblings and being able to bike in numbers, he started biking with me on his own bike at 5. Frankly, I was motivated to kick the kids off my Xtracycle because my commute included the Interstate hill. He has become a pretty experienced and savvy bicyclist who knows the rules of the road and even knows that stopping on a bike stencil will trigger a green light. Of course safety is always at the forefront of my mind but I’m surprised that no one has mentioned being judged by parents and others as a significant barrier. When I talk to other parents, many cannot get past the fact that I bike with my kids in Portland when they perceive it’s not safe to bike with kids. The judgement and fear is real! Whether it’s the percrception of biking too soon with an infant to the perception of neglect when you start letting them bike on your own, we need to get past this judgement. Biking in Portland with kids is easy and doable if you live in a close in neighborhood.
I ride with the kids on an e-assist xtracycle edgerunner daily, but my “interested but concerned” spouse won’t even discuss operating a bike / trailer with kids aboard. She also won’t bike with cars without e-assist, ride alone, or tolerate much mechanical complexity in that setting. Off-street paths and Sunday Parkways are a different story, but she wouldn’t feel comfortable with passengers in any amount of traffic without a few years of riding. She does take our 7yo with his bike to school 3/4 mile away, him riding on the sidewalk with her walking.
SE Salmon is our main greenway if we want to head toward the river, but like many commentators have noted, the sense of danger, whether real or imagined, rises dramatically with an 18 month old on the bike with you as you try to cross 12th, then 11th, then 7th with no active signage that stops vehicles on those roads. Plus a lot of dangerous auto behavior at Grand and MLK with the lights. I use the newer 20s Greenway sometimes in the neighborhood, but the hilliness and windiness of the route is a challenge on a bike that is significantly harder to pedal (the only bike I own that would accommodate my kiddo’s bike seat is a singlespeed). So currently, as Inner SE residents, we ride bikes to a couple of parks, and occasionally do a very complex ride to downtown, but the hassle is often too high and we default to our car.
Two words: FREIGHT TRUCKS. As long as they are allowed on inner city surface streets, I’ll have a hard time letting my three littles bike separated from them only by paint stripes.
I have almost 300 miles on my cargo bike with my 2 year old riding inside. Unfortunately we have to transport the bike by vehicle to bike paths to ride safely. Living on SW Taylor’s Ferry Road at the Portland/Tigard border, there are no bike lanes or sidewalks in the neighborhood and we have several hundred feet of elevation gain and loss to go anywhere. People drive cars at crazy speeds, even in a 30 zone! It is even difficult to walk the neighborhood as nobody stops for pedestrians. No way am I going to ride in the street with my kid around these parts.
Just wait until light rail comes to your door, right? People in the western neighborhoods need get out of their cars and talk to each other, work together on a 20mph Taylors Ferry rd. In my experience, the aggressive drivers there are passing through. It’s hard to chat while walking single file on goat paths.
We were riding with kids in bikes seats from before they could walk. And I guess letting them ride their own bikes on bike paths and sidewalks — with our accompaniment — from age 5 or 6. I think our oldest was 10-11 when we started letting him ride to school by himself. It was along a main arterial a little less than a mile from home. He stayed on the sidewalks (In Hungary, where our family started, kids can ride legally on sidewalks to age 12).
Now in Portland, he’s 13 and we’re giving him more and more freedom to ride by himself in the city. Safety, of course, is a concern. Navigation is a concern, as well, although having him pack a cell phone mitigates that. He can call if he gets lost. Anyway, the only way anyone learns to find their way around a city, or take charge of their own safety, is by doing it themselves. As a parent, you’ve got to take many leaps of faith. It’s a hair-raising process.
Our youngest is seven and he rides his own bike to school, with parental accompaniment. I really like Portland’s Greenways for riding with kids. At least on the ones we frequent (Klickitat, Sacramento and Going), the relatively low volume and speed of traffic make it feel pretty safe/low stress. I look forward to the day Portland has separated bikeways and much-reduced traffic speeds on arterials. But like Madi, I find Portland’s current cycling environment more kid-friendly than other cities I’ve visited — northern Europe excepted.