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Family Biking: Taking kids and bikes on MAX light rail

Posted by on June 5th, 2018 at 12:23 pm

Plenty of room for kids and bikes on a weekend train.
(Photos by Madi Carlson)

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

Using Portland’s public transit system to cart kids and bikes around can be a godsend when it works out; but it takes some getting used to and it’s helpful to know the ins-and-outs before you roll up to the station.

Here’s a window into my adventures…

I like using the bus, and I’m grateful we have a stop two blocks from home that takes my boys and I downtown (albeit very slowly); but I prefer the MAX. Trips on the bus feature rushing to get to the stop in time to catch a specific bus and then keeping a close eye on our progress so I can pull the cord in time for our stop. The thought of transferring to a second bus is much too stressful for me. (Note: this is just when I have the kids in tow. I’m much calmer when I don’t feel responsible for transporting all three of us — or all four including the dog).

➤Bike life on the MAX

Ready to board.

I love being able to bike just about everywhere. And in theory I love multimodal travel. It enables our family to stay carfree and never use rental cars or ride-sharing. That being said, it’s far from perfect.

MAX cars aren’t equipped to hold many bikes — there are spots or hooks for only two bikes through each door marked with the bike symbol, and just two such doors on each MAX train. For a family traveling with three bikes this makes us a burden on the system even without other bike users on the train. I chose to place the “Keep your kids close to make sure you don’t get separated” rule from TriMet’s Traveling with Kids page over the rule on the How to take Bikes on the MAX page about moving our third bike to the opposite end of the train to find a designated area. Instead, I just squish two bikes into one spot. Like many families who take bikes on MAX, we stick to weekends and times when it’s less crowded.

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We’ve used a few different configurations for our bikes and I’m not sure which I like best. The first time we rode I hung my bike on one hook and shoved our smaller kid bike, the 24-inch one (kid bike sizes are generally named for the size of the wheels rather than a frame measurement like adult bikes) next to it. Then I hung the larger kid bike, a 26-incher, on the other hook.

A kid bike on the floor mostly fits in the designated area next to a hanging bike.

However, I’m not all that strong and I had difficulty hanging and removing my bike so I prefer hanging the two kid bikes even though it means I then have a larger bike to keep away from the door.

Hanging the two lightest bikes of the batch is my favorite way to ride.

Wrestling my bike on and off the hook wasn’t fun. It’s additionally tricky with those puffy mountain bike tires that take up all the space above the hook, but I’m just not good at lifting and hanging any adult-weight bike. A bit disenchanted with the time it took to wrestle my bike off the hook, I tried it with only one hanging bike, leaving two on the floor.

It’s easy to exit with two bikes on the floor, but more of a balancing act.

This was also a lot easier for de-training. As you may have realized, my kids aren’t tall enough to help hang bikes on hooks, so boarding the train is a choreographed dance of us each wheeling our own bike aboard and then my grabbing their bikes one-by-one and hefting them up to the hooks. I send the kids to find seats while I stand with the remaining bike to ensure it stays upright. One kid doesn’t like standing on the moving train, but so far he’s been willing to hook an arm around a pole and bravely cling to his bike as the train lurches to a stop. This bike unhooking and delivering is performed while my bike leans against my hip, by the way.

➤ But I thought you had a cargo bike?

Good eye! I don’t bring my cargo bike on the MAX because it’s not allowed. Here’s the Types of Bikes Allowed On Board TriMet webpage:

Only single-seat, two-wheeled bikes, folding bikes, and recumbents the size of a standard bike are allowed on TriMet.

➤ Tandems and bikes with oversized wheels, three or more wheels, trailers or those powered by internal-combustion engines cannot be accommodated. Electric bikes with a sealed battery compartment are permitted.
➤ Some bikes have wheels that are too large or too far apart to fit in TriMet’s racks.
➤ Folding bikes must remain collapsed while on board, and must have a wheel size of 20 inches or less.
➤ Bikes with child seats, panniers or other accessories that block an operator’s vision out the front of a bus are not allowed.

I can’t find “no cargo bikes” anywhere on the TriMet website, but somehow we all know. This list doesn’t specify bus versus light rail, but obviously the last one about blocking the front view is bus-specific. As far as I know, all kid seats on regular-length bikes are perfectly fine on MAX.

I’d love to use TriMet as a backup to get home from places far afield, but I also like to bring my cargo bike in case I need to tow a tired kid and his bike. This means I need to decide before heading out which of those two things seems more likely. As the kids get bigger and stronger riding my regular bike and knowing we can MAX as backup will be increasingly realistic, but right now I still do a fair amount of kid carrying for short spells making this a tough decision.

➤ Tickets

One adult ($2.50) and two paying kids ($1.25 each) are a convenient $5 so I tend to pay cash when we take the bus. I like not having cards to worry to misplace, though occasionally I have to search the couch cushions for quarters when I haven’t planned well enough to have cash on hand. Of course that was all before I discovered the TriMet Tickets app. I hate the process of buying tickets before getting on the train — those are precious minutes I could spend on the platform reminding the kids not to wrestle each other so close to the tracks. So now I pay for our tickets ahead of time on my phone and activate them right before we board. It’s so easy!

➤ Bike lockers

(Photo: TriMet)

If you don’t need to use your bikes at the end of the trip, storage lockers might be an option. I wish Portland was one of those cities where we could bike to the station and lock up with hundreds of other bikes, relatively sure our bikes would be there when we returned (see Amsterdam or any other Dutch city).

While we haven’t actually used it yet, I was inspired to buy a card for an eLocker — $20 up front, $5 of which is for the card itself and $15 is for five-cents-an-hour storage. I don’t think my cargo bike will fit in a bike locker, especially with the two kid bikes, but I think we can fit a regular adult bike and the two kid bikes into one. There aren’t lockers at our closest MAX stop (two miles from home) so having a MAX-legal bike that I could transport five stops to the lockers would be nice. But then I’d have to figure out how to carry our three snowboards because the idea for the locker was born from wanting to take the Meadows Park & Ride Ski Bus.

➤ So just where are you taking the MAX anyway?

A bike too big for the MAX, but just right for booth duties.

One terrific MAX destination is Gateway Green (read BikePortland’s coverage of last weekend’s MTB Festival).

Both of our MAX trips with three bikes have been to play at the mountain bike park, though the first one also included a jaunt to the International Cat Show by the airport. Gateway Green is a bit over six miles from our house, a rideable distance for my kids even though their usual ride is just a mile to school, but I wanted them to conserve their energy so they’d have more fun once we arrive. I ended up bringing my cargo bike to the festival (towing my mountain bike for MAXing with later) so we had to pedal the whole way — 7.5 miles in 55 minutes to the start of our two-mile Kidical Mass ride delivering kids to the festival. Lo and behold my kids were tired and crabby and didn’t do much at the festival. We hung out for an hour before biking 3/4 of a mile (with small hill) to the Gateway Transit Center to catch the MAX so I could deliver them to a birthday party. While they were occupied I biked back over to retrieve my cargo bike, where it had been serving as a Kidical Mass “booth” wearing a big banner and holding a display of flyers.

What can I do to make it easier to MAX with bikes and kids? How do you and your family take advantage of the MAX-and-bike combination? Please tell me! I look forward to learning a lot from your sage advice.

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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28 Comments
  • Catie June 5, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    I also HATE THE HOOKS. I am short, my bike is heavy, and I have to take off my bags for weight and then put them back on as I depart the train. Just today, someone saw me wrestling with my bike and offered to help. I hope some trains with better bike space might find their way into a Trimet budget.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) June 5, 2018 at 3:34 pm

      My bike with a basket on the front is easier for me to hang by its back wheel since I’m lifting the lighter end. I wonder if most bikes are easier to light that way with handlebars hanging lower. Anyhow, it’s nice to know it’s not just me…though sorry you have trouble, too! Bags off and on is such a pain :/

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  • DP June 5, 2018 at 2:45 pm

    That’s fantastic! My wife and I have been car free for just over a year and bike/Max everywhere out here in Hillsboro. Will be looking into bike lockers for my Summer classes at PCC Cascade.

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  • GlowBoy June 5, 2018 at 2:58 pm

    I took my cargo bike on Madsen once with my older kid, on a quiet Saturday. Still got the evil eye from the train operator, although I wasn’t prevented from boarding. Fortunately I was using it to get to the zoo, so I didn’t have to attempt a return trip on MAX.

    Realizing I was unlikely to get away with it again, on future trips I brought my kid in/on a trailer(bike) pulled by a conventional bike, so I could split it up and bring it on MAX more easily. Getting what amounts to two bikes in and out through the doors myself, along with a child too small to handle one of them, can be a bit of a challenge.

    Definitely easier to do this if your kids are able to ride their own bike.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 5, 2018 at 3:36 pm

    I am in love with using the MAX for long adventures with little ones. I’ve now taken two kids on overnighters in Vernonia/Stub Stewart thanks to the MAX Blue Line to Hillsboro. On Memorial Day my 7-yr-old and I rode from the end of the line about 22 miles to a friend’s house to camp in Buxton (right on border of Stub Stewart Park). then we did the reverse to get home. 10 minutes from the MAX station we were on farm roads and half the route is of course the carfree Banks-Vernonia trail. I should write a blog post about it!

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  • bikeninja June 5, 2018 at 3:39 pm

    Two summers ago as my wife was getting her bike legs under her ( she was a bike newbie) we took our heavy tandem on the yellow line from Albina up to Rosa Parks so we could cycle around North Portland without the hill climb. We always did it before noon when the train was empty. I always placed the bike at an angle in the station to disguise its size and we never got a scowl from the operator or any problems from passengers even though we must have done it a couple of dozen times. I would never try this at a busy time though.

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  • John Liu June 5, 2018 at 11:35 pm

    50,000 to 80,000 bikes are stolen a year in Amsterdam.

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    • Lester Burnham June 6, 2018 at 9:58 am

      I’m actually surprised by that statistic. But Amsterdam seems to get put on a pedestal around here so we lose sight of reality.

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  • Eric Leifsdad June 6, 2018 at 12:56 am

    I bet you could get away with a folding cargo node on the max, probably not on the bus though. There seems to be (not sold in the US) a folding family bike with another seatpost halfway up the downtube and even a pad on the rear rack for the 2nd kid.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) June 6, 2018 at 8:19 am

      True, there are cargo bikes that fit on transit. Most midtails (Kona MinUte, Kinn Cascadia Flyer, Yuba Boda Boda, Bike Friday Haul-a-Day) have short enough wheel bases to fit on bus racks (some with front wheel spun 180 degrees). The Haul-a-Day has two 20″ wheels making it nice and compact to begin with and a telescoping top tube that can be shrunk to the smallest setting to shorten it even more to fit on a hook length-wise. The stock deck holds two kids who like each other, but some people put a full-sized longtail deck on it, like the Xtracycle FlightDeck to make it even comfier back there…but I’m not sure if it would hang from a hook OK like that. I think with any family bike, even if it technically fits vertically on the hook, it’s at the driver’s discretion that it doesn’t look too big and cargo bikey and get denied service.

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    • GlowBoy June 6, 2018 at 9:32 am

      Yes, if only I’d thought to get the folding version of the Madsen. 😉

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  • cam June 6, 2018 at 8:12 am

    Some of the worry about riding transit, worrying about arrival times, when to get off, connections, can be reduced by using a good transit app. I’ve been very happy with Transit which shows the lines nearby, arrival times, then once you’ve selected a route and specified your destination stop, gives you an alert two stops before your destination. Works great in Portland, and in my experience also in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati. Freind says it works great in New York City and Chicago too.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) June 6, 2018 at 8:21 am

      I didn’t know about the alert! I’ve started using Transit recently on the advice of a Portland friend who used it in Paris very successfully! Thank you! Walking two blocks from home to our bus stop or three blocks from school to the bus stop will never not be tough, though 😛

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    • GlowBoy June 6, 2018 at 9:32 am

      I use Transit regularly too, both in Portland and in Minneapolis (as well as a weekend in Seattle earlier this year). My only complaint is it doesn’t do as good of a job as PDXBus of highlighting whether the times it expects buses to come by my stop are scheduled vs. actual. When buses get off schedule it can be hard to sort out the reality.

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  • John Lascurettes June 6, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Regarding fitting more bikes on hooks, I once saw a guy wheel his bike onto a crowded train with two bikes occupying the hooks already and he just added his own giant-sized S-hook and hung his bike back-wheel-up (so the handlebars didn’t conflict with the others). “Brilliant!” I thought.

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    • Mick O June 6, 2018 at 12:27 pm

      I came here to mention the S-hook thing. I do this occasionally. I think it was $4.99 at Freddies. It works really well.

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    • Madi Carlson (Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Columnist) June 6, 2018 at 6:48 pm

      Oh that sounds handy! I know a mom who once bungeed her kid’s bike to her bike to get them both upright, but this sounds much better.

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  • Tom June 6, 2018 at 9:31 am

    Some folders now have 24″ wheels, but are apparntly banned on light rail. Why would non-folding bikes with 24″ wheels be allowed but smaller folders with 24″ wheels be banned?

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    • Kyle Banerjee June 6, 2018 at 10:05 am

      Enumerating common sense is hard.

      I cannot fathom why folders should be subject to different rules than everything else unless they’re making blanket presumptions about the space they require. If a full size 29er or 700c bike is fine unfolded, a folder that takes the same space should be fine. Forcing it to be folded if it fits just fine unfolded is goofy.

      Note that adaptive trikes and other styles to accommodate physical disabilities are not allowed, though I’ve never seen anyone try to board with such a bike.

      I seriously doubt anyone would get any guff for bringing whatever kind of bike on board so long as it’s done in a “reasonable” way.

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      • fourknees June 6, 2018 at 3:16 pm

        On MAX, Only fold if hooks are full.
        On Bus, Fold if bringing on board if rack is full.
        WES on some of the runs will actually have one car only for bikes that you can just roll on. The attendants do require you use the strap with quick release buckle to secure. (they also make you do that if your bike is in the accessible area.
        Would be nice if the MAX had an “open design” for bikes area like this.

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    • GlowBoy June 7, 2018 at 9:58 am

      It’s not that you can’t have folding 24″ (or 26″) wheeled bikes on TriMet, it’s that you need to treat them as non-folding bikes if you do.

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  • Kyle Banerjee June 6, 2018 at 9:52 am

    While I totally get why people want to take bikes on transit, it only works because so few people do it.

    There’s absolutely no issue at low use times when there’s no lack of space — weekend jaunts with the kids to quiet areas seem like a perfect use for this functionality.

    I don’t think they should be allowed at rush hour. Bikes take significant extra space which can be an issue when space is limited. No noncyclist should be left standing on the platform at times when bikes are on board or have to worry about grease/grime that’s hard to remove on their clothes.

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  • pdx2wheeler June 6, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I had an extremely bad situation occur on MAX with my child, my bike, bike trailer, and I. The train left the station (Albina / Missisippi), with my bike and 2 year old child as I was attempting to load my bike trailer. The MAX operator left me standing at the platform and took my 2 year old with him, alone. Had to call 911, and worse it hit the news! I was blamed 100% by Tri-met, of course, as they were the ones holding the bullhorn. After the fact Tri-met said, “Well, of course we don’t allow bike trailers on the MAX, dad was at fault”, yet 1 week earlier I had done the exact same thing at a different MAX stop (Rose Quarter). On that day the MAX operator announced on their overhead specifically to me, “You need to unhook your trailer from your bike before boarding the train”. I did that, got on, no problems… To me that very much implied that you could take a bike trailer on the train, just had to unhook it first. So when I did the same thing the very next weekend, I unhooked my trailer from my bike in anticipation of boarding with my daughter. When the train stopped I put my daughter and bike on board first, then quickly stepped off to grab my unhooked trailer. Turning around, the doors shut in my face, the yellow flashing buttons wouldn’t open the doors, and the train immediately left the platform without me. The operator obviously neglected to look in his rear view mirror as I was standing at the doors directly behind him, and the trains do have big rear-view mirrors. I and 2 others on the platform were shocked and stunned as operator pulled away taking my child. Needless to say, I hate Tri-met with a passion now!!!! Can still see that arrogant smug look on the operators face as he was pulling into the station, and sort of have PTSD from this experience… Watch it! Tri-met could give 2 [you-know-whats] about you… My Tri-met experience did not go well, and all I wanted was a fun day on a bike with my daughter. Tri-met is NOT the place for this type of activity.

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    • GlowBoy June 7, 2018 at 10:02 am

      Wow, that’s exactly what I always feared with taking my young kid on TriMet, and why I rarely did, even after my Madsen experience. Trying to get a bike AND a trailer AND a toddler through the doors during the few seconds they’re open, all while hoping none of this stuff falls over and hurts your child – and above all making sure you’re always on the same side of the doors as your child while you’re trying to do it – can be a challenge, to say the least.

      It’s very disappointing that the operator in your case didn’t have the humanity to give you enough time, and even more disappointing that you got blamed. The media LOVE parent-shaming, so it must have been fun for pretty much everyone involved except you and your family. Very sorry this happened to you, and there but for the grace of God have I gone.

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  • Johnny Bye Carter June 7, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    I’ve taken my kid with a trailer and with a trail-a-bike. With a trailer is way too much effort. folding everything flat and packing the trailer contents into a backpack is too time consuming. Folding a trail-a-bike and rolling it on with your bike isn’t too tough.

    I can’t really get my bike onto a hook without scraping the rear fender so I usually don’t bother to hang it. The newer trains have more clearance but it’s still not quite enough. That means I’m standing with it and constantly moving it to let people access the door or the aisle. I stand under the hook.

    There’s no good TriMet option for cyclists.

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  • Johnny Bye Carter June 7, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    I tried using the TriMet ticket app. I wanted to be paperless. But what I ended up with was delays at the bus door while the app loaded, and a dead phone with no way to access the tickets. Now that they have the HOP card it’s much better. Not as thin as a paper pass so it takes up twice as much space in your pocket, but it’s cheaper if you even miss one day a month not taking TriMet. The kid uses a Minecraft lanyard to carry his HOP card. I always carry my HOP card because I never know when I might need to take transit.

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  • Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist)
    Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist) June 22, 2018 at 11:56 pm

    I have an additional tip! After waiting 30 minutes wondering why there was no train last week I found TriMet Service Alerts: https://twitter.com/trimetalerts (which told me of a mechanical issue). Funny because I thought I was being a good transit user taking one MAX line to another rather than biking directly to the second station, but that would have been much faster and less stressful after all.

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