In front, in back, or at your side? Where should kids ride?

Posted by on May 28th, 2019 at 9:46 am

Other than getting confused by Fortnite references, I love riding side by side.
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

Front, back, side by side — these are all good ways to ride with kids! Different circumstances might call for different positioning during each ride, but I’m curious which configuration is your favorite and why. Non-family bikers, you can play, too, and share your preference(s) for riding with another adult.

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Kids in the front
I think my kids got a good handle on traffic rules during their years as passengers on my bike thanks to my narration of our rides…even though it was just for the purpose of keeping them distracted from fighting with one another. But no matter the reason this made them smart road users right from the get go. Even so, when they first started riding their own bikes, I had them ride in front of me so I could keep an eye on them and shout reminders to stay out of the door zone — car doors can swing open four feet — and to check for cross traffic at intersections. Despite my very frequent reminders, they loved the independence of riding in front of me. We’ve always lived close to multi-use paths and having the kids in front of me for long stretches with no intersections to worry about is marvelous — especially if one kid wants to ride a lot faster than the other.

No shenanigans when the kids are in front.

At first I saw no reason to tinker with our working system, but as they got bigger and I started reading about bike trains I realized I should put myself in the conductor position. This was a harder adjustment for me than for them because I was so used to keeping an eye on them at all times.

Kids in the back

Leading our bike train to school, choo choo.

Once the kids became practiced solo riders and I got more comfortable being out with them on their own bikes, I started leading the way. The main thing I like about having the kids behind me is that I present a much bigger shape and people driving will be more likely to notice me than a small child. I also like being the one to declare an intersection safe to enter and putting myself into it first.

“As they got bigger and I started reading about bike trains I realized I should put myself in the conductor position.”

Of course there are the expected detriments to not knowing everything going on behind oneself. I didn’t realize until riding with a friend and hearing his giggles that my younger son had been practicing riding without hands on his handlebars. I’ve even seen parents leading capering kiddos (often riding no-handed but doing other silly stuff, too), but I never thought that’d be me! I guess this is the version of flexing that independence muscle for biking kids once they don’t get to ride in front anymore.

Even after we swapped from kids-in-the-front to kids-in-the-back they still rode in front of me quite a bit. This mostly took place on multi-use paths and neighborhood greenways, and they always waited for me to catch up and lead the way through intersections. We’d start our days with me leading the way for several blocks of bike lane before they zoomed ahead on the multi-use path by our house, and then ceded the lead back to me once we left the path.

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Now that the novelty of being on their own wheels has worn off (they’re 12 and nine) they stay behind me (doing know knows what) all the time. But they’re fine to ride off ahead and even completely alone if they want to.

Riding side by side with kids

“If I’m not quick enough with my announcement one of them will say, ‘Car back, single file!'”

It’s legal to ride two abreast so long as you don’t impede traffic. This is how we ride most the time these days. This is solely because they attend different schools so I commute with them one at a time and they’re stuck chatting with me rather than doing their who-knows-what behind me. I have my variety of routes and still opt for the fastest route when I’m alone, which usually means lots of unbuffered bike lanes on busy streets, but with the kids we stick to quiet streets which are conducive to riding side by side. Note: people ride side by side in bike lanes, but even though I have fairly good bike handling skills I find this feels cramped and uncomfortable so I consider bike lanes to be single-file routes.

On weekends, or if I bring one kid along on the other’s school commute, we revert to mom-in-front formation, though they tend to ride side by side with one another behind me. However, their bikes are so small with handlebars so narrow that they don’t take up much more room than my big bike and me.

We’re all conscientious about impeding traffic and shift to single file for any people driving cars approaching from behind, as well as for any approaching from the front on narrow roads. It’s been fun to learn that despite their incessant chatter about school, dogs, memes, and video games, they know the drill because if I’m not quick enough with my announcement one of them will say, “Car back, single file!”

On SE Clinton, the most bike-friendly street we take with its many “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs, I don’t worry about rushing into a single file as people in cars approach since there’s room for them to pass around us. There’s room for passing on streets without the “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs, but I don’t like getting honked or yelled at and expect that to happen when riding two abreast on any other street. Today, uncharacteristically, we stayed two abreast after the Clinton greeway wiggled south one block to Woodward (still greenway, but no full lane signage) and a man griped, “Single file!” at us as he passed with plenty of room.

So what about you? Front? Back? Two abreast? Three abreast (we did quite a bit of that today on wide quiet streets)? I’d love to hear which and why. 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 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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9 Comments
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    I wear many hats May 28, 2019 at 11:48 am

    That opener is an Underground Kingz rhyme

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    Johnny Bye Carter May 28, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    We ride mostly on the neighborhood greenways and thus ride side-by-side with my in the middle of the street and the kid by the door zone. I always remind him to look out for doors. I will call for single file if there’s an oncoming car approaching. I stay side-by-side if there’s a car behind because I’m on a greenway and they’ll turn off soon, and if they don’t then too bad because it’s a greenway and you can just wait because bikes are the normal flow of traffic. There’s no room for a car to safely pass me legally on Clinton going the same direction so I’m quite annoyed when it happens.

    Usually when riding two abreast the person on the right is in the door zone. There’s no need to stop riding two abreast in such a case because if that rider gets behind you then you’re still taking up the same width in the lane because you’re not moving into the door zone simply because a car wants to pass. The same applies to a single lane road with no cars parked. A driver simply has to wait for you to pull over, if you want to.

    One of the last places I was yelled at by a driver was on Woodwood after it jogged south of Clinton. I was in my proper place in the lane and a driver in a black Jeep Cherokee didn’t appreciate me bicycling in the proper place on the road. They almost hit me as they yelled and came within inches of me. I rode home on Powell the rest of the week because if I’m going to get hit by a car then I want witnesses on a main street.

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    Chris Anderson May 28, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    I tell my daughter to ride like every door is already open. Usually she is behind me, but on Greenways she likes to ride ahead.

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    Allan Rudwick May 28, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    So telling that you got yelled at for doing something so totally safe. I have done all- front back and side but I haven’t thought much about which is best in what situation. I’ll have to put my thinking cap on a bit more but this is a good framework to start with.

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    B. Carfree May 28, 2019 at 11:58 pm

    I’m snickering as I remember riding with my son when he was four years old. Our go-to town bike was an old Huffy tandem that a friend had converted to a rear-steer bike with a kiddie crank up front. The looks we used to get as we rolled through town still make me laugh out loud. The little tyke didn’t like holding on to the handlebars, so he mostly rode with his arms crossed over his chest (still does a lot of that a quarter-century later). However, since he was in the captain position, and it wasn’t readily obvious that I was able to steer the bike, people really got confused when they saw us.

    I really like rear-steer tandems for teaching kids how to ride in traffic. They are actually there and can see, hear and feel everything. I think it softens the experience for them when they get onto their own bike.

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    J_R May 29, 2019 at 10:21 am

    I like starting them behind me – on the back of a tandem. We started our kids at 2 1/2 years old with a child stoker kit and a backrest with double chest straps.

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    Greg Spencer May 30, 2019 at 11:16 am

    With our 9-year-old, I feel safest riding behind so I can see what he’s up to and can shout out directions if needed. Also, sometimes when he’s tailing, he can fall behind without me noticing and I like to keep him close. Side by side is nice and on the Going Greenway, for instance, there’s plenty of room for that. I take the lead in instances where I’m not sure my boy will do the safest thing, such as going through a busy intersection, across a parking lot, or some other dodgy situation.

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    9watts June 2, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    What about helmet mirrors? I notice you don’t have one. I find one indispensable, not just with children. The idea of riding around without knowing who/what is behind me seems crazy.
    I prefer riding side by side. Easier to have a conversation. And our streets are so ridiculously over-wide, there seems little reason not to. I do move over to single file when/if cars show up in my mirror though.

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    Carrie June 4, 2019 at 12:05 pm

    I don’t like side-by-side in the bike lane with my kids because THEY DON’T RIDE STRAIGHT :). I’m really afraid he’s going to take me out one of these days. On a greenway I can have enough room between us for my comfort.

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