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Family Biking: Taking kids and bikes on MAX light rail

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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