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Family Biking: Get ready to bike to school

Posted by on August 21st, 2018 at 10:43 am

Many Portland schools have great bike racks.
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

We love biking to school.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

With Portland Public Schools starting in less than a week (!), this week I’ll share a bit about my family’s commute and then get into biking to school more broadly.

My two kids attended the same elementary school last year, a tad less than a mile from our house. It was a perfectly flat ride, but with two busy crossings that meant I always accompanied the kids, though they sometimes zoomed ahead of me once we got to the quiet part.

We biked to school every day using a route I chose carefully to avoid the worst of the busy roads and incorporate some fun gravel. I even devised an icy-road route for winter; but I figured if the snow or ice was too scary for biking, school would most likely be canceled (and it was for one day last year). My backup idea was to take the bus if conditions weren’t to my liking.

Our idea of a good route to school: potholes, yes; speeding drivers, no.

Hooray for cargo bikes. I “bag and drag” the kids’ bikes home from school on days we catch the bus at the end of the day.

This year will be different with a middle-schooler and an elementary-schooler. The staggered start times will allow me to escort each of them to-and-from school, though I hope to get them riding independently after a short period of adjustment.

Middle school is farther from home — 3.8 miles, or around 20 minutes (per Google maps), though the route we plan to take is 4.3 miles and around 23 minutes (I’m not sure how many minutes to add to that to account for “kid speed”). As for safety, there are a lot of busy crossings, some with stop lights, some with Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs, the button-activated flashing lights by crosswalks usually accompanied by a “vehicles may not stop” recording in English and Spanish), and one with just a crosswalk and crossbike (the green zebra markings indicating a bike route is crossing the street).

This tandem is our school bus.
(Photo by Eva Frazier)

Our address is served by the school bus and I hope to use that as a back-up on horrible weather days and possibly even on more days (or all days) if he likes the bus. My original plan was to ride our tandem back-and-forth to middle school so he doesn’t need to jump from a short, flat commute to a long, somewhat hilly commute and tire himself out.

Source good helmets and locks

I helped run the May Walk + Bike Challenge Month at our elementary school last year and discovered that a couple relatively small things kept quite a few kids from participating in our events: helmets and locks. PBOT’s Bike Resources on a Budget webpage starts with three locations to find low-cost helmets (and see my tips for tackling toddler helmet hesitancy post if you need help getting said helmet on a smaller kid).

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As for locks, since I haven’t budgeted to get my kids locks as sturdy (and pricey) as my own U-lock with cable, they use affordable chain locks. They have combination locks so I don’t have to worry about lost keys. I’ve noticed unlocked bikes at our racks at times and that makes me feel pretty safe about their locked bikes during the school day, though previous years have seen a lot of bike theft. There doesn’t seem to be any way around stronger locks costing more, but if you factor in the price of replacing an entire bike it helps make the lock feel worth it’s weight in gold (speaking of which, stronger locks tend to weigh more). I still aspire to own better locks for my kids’ bikes!

Our racks were full in May, but we were sometimes the only bikes in the middle of winter.

Know before you go

Just as important as having all the gear is having a comfortable route to school. I’ve shared my route-finding techniques in a previous column and I do indeed take the more-direct-less-comfortable route when I’m traveling alone (after dropping kids off in the morning and on the way to pick them up in the afternoon) than I do when we’re all riding together.

I strongly recommend doing a test run to time how long it takes. Feeling stressed and trying to beat the morning bell can lead to bad decisions in traffic.

And remember: biking to school doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. We bike every day because it’s our easiest option, but even biking just once a month is terrific! Even biking just once a month in just one direction with car support to collect the bikes is great!

What about you? Are you a seasoned bike-to-schooler or thinking about starting a new habit this year? There’s still time before school starts to ask questions in the comments below!

Thanks for reading. Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch if it sounds like fun to you. I’d especially like to profile families of color so please get in touch or ask friends of color who bike with their kids if they’re interested in being profiled. And as always, 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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14 Comments
  • Avatar
    Easy August 21, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    Can you talk more about your old “bag and drag” technique? It looks like there are also straps holding the bikes – any tips for where to connect them on the kid’s bike and on the long tail?

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    B. Carfree August 21, 2018 at 9:57 pm

    I have one observation on your middle-schooler. Don’t fret about tiring him out. For youngsters of his age, that’s a feature, not a bug. He will be better off for a bit of exercise before the school day, at least if he is anything like most youth.

    I was fortunate enough to grow up with swim workouts, and it’s likely a big reason I didn’t spend my youth getting into trouble out of the combination of boredom and unspent energy. I had classmates who weren’t so lucky.

    He’ll likely complain. Let him whine, but make him move. Someday, about the time you are collecting social security and he has a child of his own, he may even thank you for it.

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    • Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist) August 22, 2018 at 8:35 am

      THANK YOU! I think it’ll be good for us to work on our communication and coordination on the tandem, but I like the idea of doing that at our leisure 🙂

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        Greg Spencer August 22, 2018 at 11:14 am

        It’s hard to know how hard to push your kids. We’re a cycling family with kids aged 8 and 13. Last year, they were both at the same K-8 just under a mile from home — same as Madi’s kids. That was a very easy ride and there were no complaints from either one of them even in crappy weather. This year, our 8-year-old will have a two-mile commute that involves a hill. We’ve done the ride before many times and it’s not a big deal on most days, but there will surely be mornings when he’s not up to it, and as we’re fortunate enough to have school bus service, I have no qualms whatsoever about putting him on the bus. It’s sustainable transport, after all, and I don’t want cycling to become a duty. Both kids are great daily cyclists and I don’t want that to change ever.

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          B. Carfree August 23, 2018 at 12:32 pm

          It’s a tough balancing act, isn’t it? Too much pressure, and away goes the fun and enthusiasm, but expectations that are too low can allow them to drift away as well. One thing that I have seen used well is for parents to simply refuse to subsidize car use and generously subsidize transit use and cycling. It’s kind of the reverse of what happens for adults, where the city/state/feds subsidize car use but starve everything else.

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    El Biciclero August 21, 2018 at 10:06 pm

    I don’t know very many people of color who are interested in being profiled…

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    B. Carfree August 21, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    I’ve been kind of dreading the start of the school year. My grandpa duty involves picking my granddaughters up from school (with grandma, of course). The youngest will still be in preschool, four miles away. I’ll get her on our “girl power” tandem, swoop home to drop off her gear and hook up the trailer bike to the back of the tandem, and then we’ll set off to get the older girl four miles away in the other direction. We will get just enough time back home for a snack before we head off on another four mile trip to the dance studio. All told, the four-year-old (almost five) will ride sixteen miles as stoker and the six-year-old will get a mere eight miles on a trailer bike.

    The riding is generally fun. The reason I have been dreading it is that the streets around the older child’s school and dance studio are horrid. No decent bike lanes, abundant on-street parking that creates a door-zone hazard, two neighboring schools, one an elementary school that brings terrible parent car-things and the other a high school, and a general level of bike hate that I’m not sure will be overcome by the sight of cute girls on the back of the bikes. We’ll find a way and I hope it ends up being enjoyable, but at this point it’s on the other side of an opaque window and I’m fretting with uncertainty.

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    • Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist) August 22, 2018 at 8:43 am

      Oof, I feel for you. I hope it ends up being enjoyable, too! If you happen to be on Facebook, I’ve found the PDX Cargo Bike Gang group a great resource for everything, including finding out about any secret routes for avoiding particularly congested spots. It’s hard to explore looking for those spots before the school traffic starts up, but I hope you find some!

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    ED August 22, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    My daughter is starting preschool 2 days a week this fall and my goal is to bike at least one day a week, which is a 7-mile round-trip. I have options to either bike home and work from home, leave the bike at school and catch the bus to work, or bike to work for a mega-bike-commute day. Hoping to set good routines in the fall before the weather gets crappy!

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    Ryan August 22, 2018 at 2:28 pm

    My oldest is starting kindergarten in a few weeks. Both she and I want her to get to school by bike on the first day. It’s only a couple miles, which she could easily do effort-wise (she just did 11 miles last Saturday on the Springwater without training wheels!) but there’s not a lot of quiet side roads we can use to get there. The sidewalk would be ok but there’s too many busy parking lot entrances/exits along the way for my comfort with her. I just picked up one of those co-pilot things where it’s like just the back half of the bike and the front attaches to the seat tube of my bike, so will probably use that so then we don’t have to worry about storing/locking her bike – especially since my wife would be driving to pick her up anyways. I was happy she got into the charter school we wanted, but was a little torn since the public school is less than 4 blocks away, all on side streets, and we bike there frequently to play at the park next to it. My wife probably would have even biked with her to drop off/pick up if she was going there.

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    Edward August 23, 2018 at 9:46 am

    About Middle School: Be Ready for Rejection. That kid who wants you to bike him/her to school at home suddenly turns into a socially self-conscious teenager about 3-5 blocks from school. That’s what happened with me and my older kid.

    Also: My kid’s middle school does not have enough bike parking, there’s only enough spots for less than 10% of kids and it is full every day of the year — and a lot of kids give up on biking because there’s just no spots left when they get there. (And the admin. doesn’t really care — the principal won’t sign the forms or connect the dots to get “free” bike racks from PBOT, and the vice-principal says bike issues are for the counselors).

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      KYouell August 23, 2018 at 10:47 am

      That sucks!

      My middle schoolers go to the same school as Madi’s and after 2 years of interacting with them with my oldest I know that they don’t have this issue. Thank goodness!

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