It is with a touch of envy that I read Shawne Martinez’s account of an epic carfree multimodal adventure to Seattle with his kid. How exciting! And yet for me – a mother of five – how impossible!
As Shawne recounts, part of his trip was dependent on getting a bus with an empty bike rack, because he and his daughter both had bikes, and Trimet buses are only equipped to carry two bikes at a time. Thus, his trip was not only dependent on an empty bus rack, but also on him having only two people in his traveling group. Such a family trip, it would seem, is limited to families of two. This is the case for almost all multimodal trips that combine bikes with Portland area transit. Buses, including Trimet’s new FX line only carry two bikes at a time. MAX trains can carry more bikes, with train cars equipped with two bike hooks at each end, and the possibility of squishing in an extra kid bike, or using (when empty) handicapped spaces for bikes. Thus, in circumstances of an empty MAX, it could be possible to travel together with four bikes on the low-floor trains, with two hanging from the hooks, and two in the wheelchair spaces.
Still, that doesn’t accommodate a family as large as mine. With five kids and one or two adults, we’d be needing space for six or seven bikes.
This uncomfortable truth is why the Gorge Express buses caught my attention: they are equipped to carry nine bikes at a time. Does this mean, Gorge Express aside, I should give up on multimodal travel dreams? Is multimodal a no-go for big families? Or are there solutions for families like mine?
Our big-family transit needs are mass transit needs
As I’ve mused over this big-family transit conundrum, I’ve begun thinking about the mass usage of multimodal transit. Our current system of two-bikes-per-bus doesn’t take mass usage seriously. It feels like a token system, which is actually reliant on the idea that few people will seek to use it. Workers certainly can’t try to take a bike on a heavily traveled morning bus commute, as Cornelius Mayor Dalin explained a while back.
If we are serious about encouraging multimodal travel, we have to think about ways to make it accessible and workable for mass usage, making it a reliable option for big families and large numbers of commuters. What would that mean? How could that be done?
My first question is, why aren’t all buses equipped to carry nine bikes? For many commutes, a nine-bike carrying capacity would make multimodal trips a realistic, rather than very tenuous, option. (Even our big family could do it!) Still, that’s only nine standard bikes, and a lot of bike-loading time, slowing down bus trips.
Cargo bikes, especially box bikes, are obviously not an option for taking on the bus or train – though I fantasize about the last MAX cars being emptied of seats to allow cargo bikes to roll on and ride during non-peak hours, and accommodating standing-room people rides during the peak. A cargo-bike MAX car would be life-changing. But I recognize that we need to be thinking about systems that work for the masses, not just for me personally. In Amsterdam, where almost everyone bikes, buses don’t permit regular bikes at all, but only foldable bikes carried on as hand-luggage. The token system of a two bike rack would be ridiculous in such a bike-heavy city. Instead, I am told that there are large bike parking facilities at transit hubs, along with easy, frequent, and accessible bike rental options, so that multimodal bike-transit trips typically mean parking your personal bikes, then renting at your destination stop, including family cargo bike rentals.
What works in Amsterdam might not be the solution for Portland (I think most of us around here are pretty attached to our personal bikes, so that rental bikes feel like a hard pill to swallow, but maybe that’s an adjustment we need to make). And what we should do today, in the “meantime” between current usage and hoped-for-mass usage, may also look different from future days where mass options exist or are mandatory.
At the moment, I’m dreaming of a small family fleet of foldable bikes for multimodal family trips. That’s not in our current budget, and I still have children too little to fold and carry their own bikes, or even to ride independently. I can’t take my cargo bike on the MAX, which is my only bike that can carry my infant. That pretty much eliminates the multimodal options for us….except for a little extra creativity.
Using what we have right now: Our first multimodal family trip
I wanted to attend the recent Sunday Parkways via MAX and with rolling options for the kids when we arrived, so this is the option we came up with: Compact Double Stroller + 3 Scooters, all fit into the space of one hanging bike!
Which means, we just made our first ever multimodal family trip! It was a bit of a dance, getting everyone on and off, and I’ll be the first to admit that a stroller isn’t a great scooter companion (my apologies to everyone at Sunday Parkways who had to contend with me following slowly behind scootering children). But I’m happy that we did it. In the future, I hope to get a MAX-friendly bike outfitted with a child seat, or two (handlebar seat and back rack–has anyone managed such a bike on the MAX? Send photos, please.) And then, I guess we need skateboards or mini-bromptons for the rest… Wouldn’t it be fun to be a folding-bike family? Maybe someday…
Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via email@example.com