Humans, bike maps, and of course, Google: How to choose family-friendly routes

I like routes calm enough for kids to ride ahead of me.
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

Call me crazy, but I have four different routes for each destination. In order of comfort, high to low:

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

They sometimes have a bit of overlap, but they’re rarely entirely the same.

I’ve made a couple interesting discoveries about my route choices lately and it’s got me thinking about how I choose my family-friendly routes and why they’re better for more than just biking with kids.

Two days ago I biked around with a friend visiting from Seattle and I realized that if we took my kid-friendly route we could ride side-by-side and talk the whole way home. That certainly seemed worth 31 minutes versus 28 (per Google Maps estimates). Then yesterday morning the kids and I left home a bit late so we forewent our usual out-of-the-way route that incorporates six blocks of fairly car-free “roadway not improved” pothole-strewn gravel and I realized how loud the direct route is. I take this direct route when I’m alone, after I’ve dropped the kids off at school and on my way to fetch them at the end of the day. Until yesterday’s shouted conversation, the noise pollution eluded me.

As an example of my different routes, here’s how I get close-in from the Woodstock/Mt. Scott area:

➤ If I’m alone or have the kids attached to my bike I’ll take the bike lane (a mixture of in the door zone and against the curb) of SE 52nd Ave and head west on SE Clinton St, my favorite greenway.

➤ If I’ve got the kids with me and one or both is on their own bike(s) we head the “wrong” way to use quiet SE 67th Ave for a light to cross busy SE Foster Rd and then wiggle over to equally quiet SE 65th for a light to cross extremely busy SE Powell Blvd (at the intersection with the furniture store dressed in anti-road-diet posters) and connect up with Clinton.

➤ If I’m rushing to a meeting after dropping the kids at school I’ll bomb down SE Steele St which has bike lanes the last few blocks, but mostly nothing.

Paint-buffered bike lanes are not protected bike lanes.

I’ve come to understand “it’s not that steep”/”it’s not that busy” and “there’s only one steep block”/”there’s only one crappy block” are hints that I probably won’t like a certain route and will take all future advice from that person with a grain of salt.

When I started family biking 10 years ago I never went anywhere kid-free, so I developed my calmest routes first. But now that we’re in a new city and they’re at school six hours a day I often go new places without them and unless I’m investigating a kid-friendly route for future use, I tend to be lazy and just follow Google Maps. I need to break this habit because I’ve been using the same non-kid-friendly routes over and over without trying any small changes to find calmer alternatives for even parts of my trips. It might just be that I had more time to find my routes back in Seattle, but I think it really was easier — primarily because there are so many fewer greenways. That really helped limit my options.

Hills are an issue for kids and heavy bikes here, but they’re even more of an issue in Seattle and that also conveniently dictated where I could ride. Thirdly, I’m still getting used to the lack of stop lights for crossing arterials here. There really aren’t that many spots where kid-friendly streets have a light or all-way stop for crossing busy streets. For example, to cross SE Woodstock Blvd (which is only two lanes, but it’s busy!) I could take the kids to that door-zone bike lane (or sidewalk) of SE 52nd Avenue I mentioned before so we just wait for a break in traffic. The next light is 20 blocks away, for an even busier arterial.

So when I’m alone I consider bike lanes on arterials the lesser of two evils because at least I can cross big streets with a light. I’m a pretty stubborn person and bad at asking for help…unless it’s for bike routes. But I wouldn’t ask just anyone for help to find a route I’ll find pleasant for traveling with kids. I’ve come to understand “it’s not that steep”/”it’s not that busy” and “there’s only one steep block”/”there’s only one crappy block” are hints that I probably won’t like a certain route and will take all future advice from that person with a grain of salt. But if you can find a friend with the same temperament for traffic and hills (downhills as well as uphills, they’re both not as fun with heavy bikes or kids riding on their own) utilize them!


My go-to route advice giver is Kath Youell of the Portlandize blog. She knows all the best intersections and sneaky routes around any hills. She’s started posting some of her “flattest routes” on her blog, too. I have yet to find a spot Kath can’t route me to, but if I did need a backup source, it would be the PDX Cargo Bike Gang Facebook group. The group contains “strong and fearless” bicyclists, family bikers who share my route criteria, and everything in between.

Crowdsourcing directions always yields interesting results. Obviously I’m biased, but I find family bikers to give the best route advice. They’ll also know of kid-friendly cafes and places to stop for restrooms along the route. The Interactive Digital Bike Map of Portland (or non-interactive Citywide Bike Map or links to these and all the other Bike + Walk Maps) is also terrific, though I have to say I’d mark at least 100 more spots with the “Difficult Intersection” red circle. I’d love a map with all the especially nice bike infrastructure and even just all the spots where quiet streets have stop signs, stop lights, or button-activated flashing lights (RRFBs) for crossing busy streets.

Fewer hills and the lack of lakes and their ripple effect of curving roads makes for such a nice grid here and it’s fairly easy to navigate between favorite friendly intersections.

More of these, please!

And I still do plenty of looking at maps on my own, too, before I ask for help. Routing on my own doesn’t have to entail following the first option Google Maps presents. I find that’s a good starting point and then I do a lot of peeking at intersections and road widths with Google Street View. Google doesn’t have all the “Except bicycles” diverters accurately cataloged so it’s also wise to check any weird jogs in Google Street View. I used to be good about clicking “Send feedback” and submit photos and map screen shots in the hopes of getting bike-route errors corrected, and I’m putting it on my to-do list to start that up again.

One of those needless jogs is up a hill!

And Google Street View is out of date for the other, but it’s a good guess that they’re both car diverters and fine for bikes to pass through. Google isn’t the only game in town, of course. Ride with GPS’ Find a Route and Strava Heatmaps are also sources for finding routes. I tend to think of them as routes for the “strong and fearless” set, but that’s not always the case. In person on the fly I’ve recently discovered a couple short cuts by following commuters when they leave the signed bikeway. Usually these are purely short cuts and replace one quiet block with a busy one, but sometimes it’s a quiet left-right-left jog to avoid a stop sign and a nice trick to one’s repertoire.

My on-the-fly route-finding claim-to-fame in Seattle was spotting a rare non-e-assisted pedicab and following him uphill from the waterfront through a lovely new-to-me plaza and along a road with a doable grade. To this day I’m always tempted to follow very heavy and/or wide bikes for the kinds of routes only they can fully appreciate.

It’s rare to encounter a car on a road like this.

Do you have any general tips and tricks? And any specific routes or parts of routes worth sharing? I’m sure there’s a lot I haven’t discovered in my almost eight months here. 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.

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