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.
➤ 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.
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
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.
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.
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Madi Carlson (@familyride on Twitter) wrote our Family Biking column from February 2018 to November 2019. She’s the author of Urban Cycling: How to Get to Work, Save Money, and Use Your Bike for City Living (Mountaineers Books).
In her former home of Seattle, Madi was the Board President of Familybike Seattle, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting bicycling as a means for moving towards sustainable lifestyles and communities. She founded Critical Lass Seattle, an easy social group ride for new and experienced bicyclists who identify as women and was the Director of Seattle’s Kidical Mass organization, a monthly ride for families. While she primarily bikes for transportation, Madi also likes racing cyclocross, all-women alleycats, and the Disaster Relief Trials. She has been profiled in the Associated Press, Outdoors NW magazine, CoolMom, and ParentMap, and she contributed to Everyday Bicycling by Elly Blue.