Family Biking: This spring, take the ‘Why not bike?’ challenge

My new challenge this season: bike to every bikeable destination on our schedule, and if I am considering driving, to challenge myself with the question, “Why not bike?”

My original family biking goal was modest: to go on one family bike ride each week. When we were just getting started, that was a real challenge. I’d see the weekend approaching and think, “I have to get us out for a bike ride; we haven’t ridden anywhere this week!”

We’ve come a long way in two years!

Now, I look forward to biking almost daily. Every morning, I ask myself, “is there somewhere we can bike today?” I look forward to errands, as if they are needed excuses for going on a bike ride. I have a long list of parks and favorite bike-able destinations for taking the kids on outings, and we are still adding to that list on a regular basis. My children readily grab helmets when it’s time to leave the house, and the bike is now competing as our primary mode of transportation. Even the baby has begun to enjoy biking, as he eagerly points to his winter outfit and his bike seat, eager to go for another ride.

Still, there’s room for growth, and Spring seems like a great time to set new family biking goals.

My new challenge this season: bike to every bikeable destination on our schedule, and if I am considering driving, to challenge myself with the question, “Why not bike?”

This question is a helpful re-frame as I’m still shaking off the norms of an entrenched car culture in my brain. This little “why not bike?” has put me back in the saddle on numerous occasions, when I had been reaching for the keys. 

Below are some of the recent answers to our “why not bike” challenge…

Why not bike?

A: It’s cold.

Solution: Dress warmer, with a warm base layer (I just wear leggings under my regular pants), and put on a good waterproof outer layer, including hat and waterproof gloves. It takes a little extra work to dress warmly, but it doesn’t get that cold in greater Portland. I remind myself that, however cold I think it is, it would probably classify as a warm day in Sweden, and nordic folks still go outside in really cold weather. Just go for it!

A: It’s dark.

Solution: I turn on my bike lights and wear a reflective vest or add another light/reflective tape to the outside of my backpack. I was trying to save money by scrounging used/old/broken lights around the garage, but they kept breaking, or were difficult to attach to our bikes, or the batteries were dead. Realizing that a lack of working lights was preventing us from biking, I finally decided to invest in a whole batch of new lights, so we can get all the bikes in the family properly outfitted, and have another few sets ready-to-go whenever a light breaks or battery dies. I know it’s a big expense, but if you can afford it, it will save you money (and hassle) in the long run.

A: I’m shopping and I’ll have a big load to haul home.

Solution: Run this errand on the weekend, when the kids can stay home with daddy. With the cargo box empty of children, and a capacity to carry over 200 lbs of cargo, and an electric assist to help with pedaling a full load, I don’t actually need to drive for the vast majority of shopping trips, as I recently proved with a trip to the garden store for bags of compost and soil. The cargo bike can usefully accomplish this. In fact, using the bike as a shopping cart at the garden store, I found the bike is more efficient. I don’t have to park, load a cart, then walk to my vehicle and load my trunk, then return the cart. Instead, I just walk my cargo trike up to the bags of compost and soil, load them up, pay, and then bike home. As I have found on other occasions, the bike was actually preferable for the errand, and I got the bonus of some exercise and fresh air too.

A: Because the kids are going to be hungry. 

This answer sounds funny, but it’s real! Little kids are constantly and desperately hungry, and hunger quickly leads to meltdowns and emotional disasters. I’m trying not to buy food out, which gets really expensive for five kiddos. My ideal is to always have home-made snacks on hand, but often I fall short of that goal. A lack of ready-to-eat snacks that I could just throw in a pannier has been deterring me from biking. I have a box of wheat thins and goldfish, we can just grab that and go. It’s a little thing, but sometimes little things can make the difference. Asking “why not bike” helped me realize that I need to add some easy snacks to the grocery list. Problem solved!

A: It’s too far.

Sometimes, this is true. There are occasions where biking is not realistic for us. But we are challenging ourselves. With an electric assist, we can go a lot further with less stress/difficulty. Maybe, on some occasions, what used to be “too far” is actually within reach; we just haven’t tried it yet.

Another solution: Change the destination to a closer/bikeable option. As I wrote recently, we are examining all of our drive-commute activities, extracurriculars, and errands and asking ourselves: is this really necessary? Can we find a closer option that is bikeable? Is this particular thing worth the drive, and all that driving entails?

A: The baby is napping, or needs a nap, or won’t nap on the bike.

Solution: The obvious solution is to change activities so as not to conflict with naptime, or to change the napping start time, so as not to conflict with the activities. This isn’t always possible. In one instance, I was regularly waking my baby up, driving 30 minutes in traffic, entertaining four children for an hour inside the minivan while one kid did an activity, then driving us 30 minutes home, leaving us tired, hungry, and in need of dinner – with no time or energy to cook it. It was an activity I really valued and wanted to continue, but I finally had to acknowledge that the cost of a long, stressful drive during naptime, was just too high. We gave it up, and have chosen a nearby Saturday morning activity instead. This will allow us to bike without disturbing baby’s nap, and also to visit friends and a nearby park during the activity, instead of watching movies on a minivan screen device while waiting in a parking lot with a crying baby. It’s a change that is absolutely refreshing.

Another solution: Pick an activity that allows an older child to commute independently. This is life-changing! My oldest son has just joined the swim team. Why swim team? Because the pool is just six blocks away. Today was his first solo commute, and our whole family is delighted. I didn’t have to wake up the baby or drag a whole van full of siblings to sit and wait during an activity they weren’t participating in. Instead, my oldest rode his bike alone (something we have practiced for months together). After swim practice, he arrived home dripping wet from rain and beaming from ear to ear from his newfound independence.

A: There’s a scary road.

Solution: This depends! I am putting extra effort in to plan safer routes that avoid scary roads. I’m also trying out some intentional sidewalk riding, just to get us through a few patches with high car speeds that don’t feel safe if we chose road riding. I’m also trying to not get discouraged at the increased length of these safer routes, but to appreciate the longer rides as opportunities for more exercise.

Of course, sometimes there just isn’t another way. So I am trying to get involved in bike advocacy in my neighborhood, with the hope of helping spur safer road improvements, especially on the scary sections of roads that prevent us from biking to favorite destinations. A new cycle track in my community has completely elevated my idea of what is possible. A seemingly impossible and dangerous road–one we never would have ridden–now has a cycle track that is one of our favorite, and most comfortable, places to ride. Good changes can happen. I hope to find ways to be a catalyst for those changes.

A: Because I have always driven.

Solution: Make biking the default. Plan to bike. And when I am tempted to reach for the keys, out of habit or convenience, I ask, “why not bike?” When I don’t have a good answer, I grab my helmet and bike instead.

That’s just a sampling of the useful ways that asking “why not bike?” has helped our family carefully consider our biking obstacles and focus our efforts on tackling those that we can overcome ourselves. Sometimes it’s as simple as buying a box of granola bars or a good rain jacket!

If we don’t have a good reason to drive, we are committing ourselves to biking. That’s our new family biking challenge. Happy riding!

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of  five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via shannon4bikeportland@gmail.com

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pierre delecto
pierre delecto
1 month ago

With the cargo box empty of children, and a capacity to carry over 200 lbs of cargo, and an electric assist to help with pedaling a full load,

This advice works if you live in an area with low levels of bike theft but there is no way I would risk parking my bike+trailer at my grocery store.

Michael
Michael
1 month ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

I hear you on the trailer, but if you’ve got a cargo box, I would just bring the bike inside and load directly into the box. It’s no different than using a cart. When I go grocery shopping with my bike, I always just bring it inside and load up the panniers directly.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael

FWIW, my grocery store does not allow people to bring bikes inside.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

I use a Travoy trailer (https://www.rei.com/product/221552/burley-travoy-cargo-trailer), which I just take inside. No way I would ever leave it outside in New Portland, but it can carry a lot, and it is easy to wheel around the store. It can also quickly be folded and placed in a shopping cart.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

This would be an option but it’s quite expensive.

John
John
1 month ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

Yeah, that really is a bummer. I’d like to be able to use my trailer for just that, if nothing else it would let me ride the bike I’d most prefer to ride, although I think the experience for passengers in the trailer isn’t that great.

That’s why cargo bikes seem so transformative to me. They’re one piece. Not only does that mean there’s nothing to easily take and run off (well, there always is something), but the whole thing is a beast to move if it’s locked. I know it’s possible to steal but I’m just a lot less concerned with it going away with the wheel lock and being locked to a rack.

Mine wouldn’t be convenient to take inside, as Michael’s seems to be, it’s really long and doesn’t balance. That Bunch bike Shannon has seems like it’s basically designed for that being self balancing.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago
Reply to  John

Yes! This is an advantage of a box trike. It works really well for shopping, walking around an outdoor market, or even inside a tolerant grocery store, since it stays balanced on its own and doesn’t have to be held upright with a heavy load. I wasn’t able to walk my 2-wheeled cargo bike as easily in such situations. (2-wheeled bakfiets have other advantages though. Stay tuned for my thoughts on 2 vs. 3 wheels).

X
X
1 month ago

Really excellent article, and I’m looking forward to “2 vs. 3 wheels.”

Joseph E
1 month ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

I shopped in NE Portland for 3 years every time using a bike + old trailer. I never had a trailer stolen, though I was often in Hollywood and other high-theft areas. If I was parking in a particularly risky location I sometimes locked the trailer to the bike frame with a cable lock.

ED
ED
1 month ago

I would add to the list, “Because biking would take more time,” which I hear in my head a lot but find it dissipates upon examination. For example, it takes 15 min for me to drive to work and 30 min to bike, but I try to go for a 30 min walk on the days that I drive, so really the total time is the same for “transportation and exercise” and I might as well pick the bike. Sometimes it really does take more time, especially longer trips, but other times the time difference is negligible or not as important as the additional benefits of fresh air, exercise, avoiding parking struggles, etc. Just another prompt for me to unpack the “driving as default” mentality.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago
Reply to  ED

Yes! I have definitely find this to be a situation I encounter. I have to accept a longer commute, but it’s the only exercise I get, so I could see it as a bonus, like an upgrade, rather than a negative.

John
John
1 month ago

This is inspiring stuff, thank you!

Box bikes really are human powered minivans. They’re great. I have a Gazelle bakfiets I got used on Craigslist and I love it. It can carry anything. I do intend to make a couple mods to it. Being from the Netherlands it doesn’t seem designed to handle any hill at all in terms of gearing as well as brakes, so I plan to put in a smaller chainring (I have almost never needed the top two or three gears), and am leaving open the escape hatch of an e-assist if it ever comes to that. But so far I’ve been pedaling that beast around even some steep hills (for very short bursts) like around Alameda.

X
X
1 month ago
Reply to  John

Good point. For years bikes marketed to average people have been geared as if they were for racers. Hardly anybody needs a 44-11 gear which will move a bike at over 30 mph if a person can actually turn it. I dislike my 11 tooth small cog so much I used the derailleur limit screw to shut it out. It’s really hard to buy standard bike parts that have a useful range of rear cogs and the single chain ring fashion isn’t helping.