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Here’s why more Portlanders don’t bike with their kids


Barbara and Ken Stedman’s 5-year-old daughter Helena opts for the sidewalk on SW Terwilliger.
(Photo: J. Maus)

A few weeks ago I wanted to know what prevents you from biking with your young children. I got a lot of feedback. Several themes emerged, the most prevalent of which, surprised me.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

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Strangely enough, one of the comments that stuck with me most was left by reader John Liu on a subsequent post. He wrote:

Rule 1: no matter the topic of the post, the comments are always about infrastructure.

I’d been lulled into complacency by the comparative awesomeness (compared to most the rest of the US, that is) of Portland’s bike infrastructure. I figured everyone was making-do and appreciative of what we have here, despite the obvious shortcomings. But apparently that’s my new-in-town, still-fresh-faced-and-rosy-cheeked bias showing. Turns out many of you are worried about infrastructure that does not make streets safe enough for you and your family.

But that’s not the only thing we heard. Here’s what else weighs on the minds of moms, dads, and the caregivers of Portland (as culled from our blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter posts)…

Infrastructure

My kids have yet to bike on Williams.
(Photo: Madi Carlson)

Here are two snippets of a comment from Clint Culpepper that particularly spoke to me:

The gaps in our network appear magically once a kid is with you…He’s physically capable of riding the distance to and from his preschool but downtown is a no-go.

A lot of people shared that like me, they make changes to their bike routes to make them safe for kids, but there are some places that simply don’t allow for that.

From johnny burrell:

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.

Too true! The thing I like about paint-buffered bike lanes is at least the right amount of space has been allocated to bikes and adding a real barrier should be that much easier. Car parking and bike lane would need their positions swapped, but there’d be no loss of parking spots (not that I think a loss of parking spots is a bad thing, but I’m biased).

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Weather

Nice gear helps, but wet and cold weather is still a drag.
(Photo: J. Maus)

From Tad Reeves via Twitter:

For me, it’s mostly weather. We have a WeeHoo and a Burley Honey Bee for the little one and bikes for the biggers. But rain pants are spensive as hell, esp when you have to get them for growing kids.

and from “just one skip remount”:

The rain is the only thing that holds my fam back. Not the traffic, the hills or the infrastructure. Just that rain. Without shame, I look forward to the sun shine!

As a native Southern Californian, I find Pacific Northwesterners to be amazingly hardy! But even so, I’m not alone in saying I’d much rather bike in nice weather than bad, and I would never fault anyone for complaining about (or avoiding completely) biking in the rain. The happier the kid(s), the happier the commute, the happier the parent. And it’s not as easy to keep kids — especially in passenger form — happy in the rain. Passengers are going to notice uncomfortable rain in their faces more than pedalers and they get cold much more easily. And as Tad mentions above, rain pants aren’t cheap.

Theft/space

From Anna:

…our apartment is small so we’d have to store it outside and there have been thefts from the racks in our area.

I don’t enjoy carrying a regular size and weight bike inside my house, but a family bike is just about impossible for me to maneuver anywhere tricky. Bikes take up space (I have no furniture in my living room so our bikes can live inside) and if they’re not easy to get to, we’re much less likely to use them. Locking bikes outside makes them easy to access but prone to theft. The theft of any bike is heartbreaking, but when it’s bike designed or modified to carry kids, it’s especially so. As for commenter Anna, fortunately she lives downtown without a car and can walk and take transit most places.

Judgment

From Hau:

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 judgment and fear is real!

Ugh, the judgment of other parents!

I feel more exposed to judgment on my bike than I do to danger… I can’t roll up the car windows to hide from public scrutiny.

Impossible to ignore and easy to imagine even when nothing is said aloud. I feel more exposed to judgment on my bike than I do to danger. Once a woman in a minivan rolled down her window and drove beside me (I was in a bike lane with a one-foot, paint-only buffer) to tell one of my kids to stop hitting his brother. She drove alongside me for one long block, her attention on us rather than the road in front of her. I didn’t think she was going to accidentally run us over, but I was horrified at her lack of attention to driving. I didn’t feel safe to say this to her, though. Not because I didn’t want to cross a person operating a machine that could so easily crush us, but because she was so oblivious to her dangerous behavior I knew it wouldn’t register.

On my bike I feel obligated to narrate every little tantrum in cheery sing-song, “I hear that you’re hungry/I am, too!/We’ll be home in five minutes/We’ll eat some stew!” or “Why don’t we give a name to that worm you had to leave at the park? And we’ll go visit him again tomorrow,” lest anyone think the wailing is because of the biking and because I can’t roll up the car windows to hide from public scrutiny.

As more and more of us take to biking for transportation with kids, it will become more commonplace and less alarming for our car-bound peers. I doubt the same (and appropriate) fear will ever be cast upon putting precious kids into cars so I make a point of never arguing back with data, but focus only on the fun of biking with kids and how safe it feels to me.

Time

From Jami:

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.

Yep! In dense areas with adequate bike infrastructure, biking will always be faster than driving, but spread things out and that’s not the case. There are flexible workplaces out there and I’d like to think the tide is turning as I hear about companies offering compensation for walking, biking, and taking transit. This is another area in which I hope Portland will change exponentially and spur other cities to do the same.

ED’s comment hits on time as well as a bunch of other themes:

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.

Price

This bike was an investment I was happy to make, but a big investment nonetheless.
(Photo: Madi Carlson)

Also from ED’s comment:

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.

I’m so impressed with families who trade minivan for cargo bike in the blink of an eye with no practice run. My transition to car-free was sooooooo slow and I didn’t invest in a cargo bike until we’d more than outgrown my little city bike with two kid seats. There are cheaper options out there, but even they are an investment and finding used items can require a lot of time for auction watching or the slow process of assembling all the necessary pieces gradually.

Gear that fits

Sara Davidson has been the Director of Kidical Mass for a long time (now Co-Director as I’ve joined leadership) and commented about gear:

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 hardly a giant at 5’5″ but I’m tall enough that I can ride the smallest cargo bikes and have long realized that friends shorter than me were out of luck. Fortunately there are some cargo bikes that fit shorter people now, and in cities like Portland they’re even available at bike shops for test rides, but it’s still a lot harder for people not in the regular height range to find bikes.

Suggestions for improvement

I love that some readers included specific suggestions on what would make things better!

From maxD:

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.

And from Rider:

Diverters on every neighborhood greenway every four blocks are desperately needed.

I’ve heard this metric once before and I like it!

Are some of these barriers things you’ve overcome and can give advice about? These barriers all affect me to a certain extent. Weather, time, and infrastructure keep us close to home; but I expect our range will increase as the days lengthen — provided I can find safe routes. I predict I’ll discover a bunch of horrible gaps I hadn’t noticed when biking alone.

I agree that a lot needs to change to make our roads safer for everyone and I absolutely love the tireless work of advocacy groups like BikeLoudPDX and programs run by The Street Trust. Portland is definitely not resting on its laurels and I’m overjoyed to live in a city I think will continue to improve and inspire cities around the world.

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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