Family Biking: No, you don’t need an e-bike (but you’d love having one)

On an e-bike in the summer of 2016.Photo by Cory Poole.

On a rental e-bike in the summer of 2016.
(Photo: Cory Poole)

Last week’s profile of the carfree Kurten family sparked some great comments about e-bikes. In the near future, I’ll write about various types of e-assists, where to test ride, rent, buy, and have them serviced. But today I’m going to write about the opposite: not having an e-bike.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

I got the impression some readers think it’s impossible to be a carfree family without an e-bike and I’d like to counter that it is possible, plus I’m not the only one doing it. However, it’s not for everyone, which is exactly why e-bikes — and e-cargo-bikes in particular — are so amazing for families who want to live car-lite or carfree.

I’m nothing special, but I have spent a decade working towards my current status of being carfree with 150 pounds of kids. Read how I’ve carried my kids by bike for the past 10 years and you’ll see I’ve been biking with my kids since they were tiny and totable. I was able to ever-so-gradually build muscle, confidence, and stubbornness; and the kids were able to grow up learning getting everywhere on bikes is an ordinary thing. Babies and toddlers are so little, light, and portable, and many conveniently grow into kids who will ride their own bikes right around the time they become too hefty to carry easily. Before e-assists were commonly available (I didn’t even know there was such a thing when I upgraded from my regular bike to a cargo bike seven years ago), I followed in the footsteps of the biking families with kids older than mine:

➤ Parent carries kid(s) for as long as possible, weight- and size-wise.
➤ Kid(s) ride their own bike(s) if the roads/distances are kid-friendly enough, or
➤ The family switches to using a tandem bike or two.

In countries where “8-80” bike infrastructure is a reality, tandem bikes aren’t part of the family biking trajectory, but in a pre-e-assist America, they sure were. One thing parents noticed as they graduated from limo driver to bike train leader is that their range drastically decreased, and that is something e-bikes have done away with.

The only time my kids have been up Rocky Butte is the time we rented an e-bike.
(Photo: Madi Carlson)

In addition to the years of experience with wee cargo, I’ve always preferred to live hyperlocally and that plays well with not having an e-assist. Before moving to the Pacific Northwest and having kids, I lived in San Diego. I liked how self-contained my neighborhood of Pacific Beach was: I rode my beach cruiser to everything — grocery stores, library, doctor, dentist, beach, bars, friends’ houses — except I drove 10 freeway miles to my two jobs in Sorrento Valley. That love of biking to things close to home was always there and has only grown over time.

Carrying a sick 90-pound kid four miles home from school isn’t my favorite thing to do, but it works!
(Photo: Madi Carlson)

Like Pacific Beach, Portland is well-suited to getting around by bike. We don’t live close-in, the closest we could get was between Woodstock and Mt. Scott, but it’s flat out here! Having moved here from hilly Seattle (also good for biking, but not as good as here), it’s a dream. My children attend neighborhood schools, which last year meant I biked one flat mile there and one flat mile back twice a day to escort them both to the same elementary school, but this year the two-school commute has me biking 20 flattish miles each day. And while they’re at school I mainly work from home, though sometimes from coffee shops, and sometimes out of the house leading bike tours.


For me, it really comes down to the fact that I don’t have an e-bike because I haven’t replaced a car. Caveat: I’m currently able-bodied and capable of getting around with pedal-power alone, carrying one or two kids on occasion, but I know that won’t always be the case and I fully expect to invest in an e-assisted cargo bike if and when any of the three of us becomes less able-bodied because I don’t ever want to own a car again. But in the meantime, I’ve been able to set myself up with a bike-based life rather than a car-based life. What exactly does this mean? Well:

The bike-based life
➤ Things are not car distance away or timed such that the distance must be traversed at car speed.
➤ Therefore, my backup plan does not need to be a car.
➤ If my bike were to break, or were myself or one of the kids unable to bike, we would not be stuck with our only alternative being a car of some sort (rental, taxi, ride from friend).
➤ Walking and busing are options for all our destinations and our bikes simply make things quicker, easier, and a lot more fun.

Obviously, I’m privileged that I can live such a life. Not everyone can live like this, and not everyone should live like this. I like to think when people see us biking around as a family, whether or not they can see my bike doesn’t have an e-assist (which is never a mystery if I’m on even the smallest incline) a seed is planted and they’ll wonder if they can’t bike or walk more, too.

What are your thoughts on e-bikes? Has your thinking changed over time? I’m relieved that fewer people (though one commenter last week) think of e-bikes as “cheating” these days. Thanks for reading!

Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch if that sounds like fun. I’d especially like to feature families of color so please get in touch or ask friends of color who bike with their kids if they’re interested in sharing their stories. 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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