Amtrak Voyage Part I: The preamble

To say our younger kid R (now 8) loves trains and buses is a severe understatement. His love started to show at age 2 when he nearly exploded with happiness every time he saw a train pull into the subway station and easily memorized the order of stops on the Red line, our usual Boston train. He had the rest of the T network memorized at age 3 and much of the MBTA bus network memorized at age 4 (route geography, key terminals, stop frequency for most lines). Angela and I have both spend more hours than we can count on all day “bus and train trips” to the far reaches of the city. He’s gone to NYC for the sole purpose of riding subway trains (and is begging to go again). The exact focus of his love and attention shifts over time. Over the last year or so, his focus has moved a bit away from understanding every last detail of the MBTA bus schedules, and toward Amtrak and Canada Via Rail long distance passenger trains.

In our family, there is a tradition that grandkids get to go on a solo visit to their grandparents (my parents) in Denver when they are age 8 or 9. This summer it was R’s turn to make this trip and sometime over the winter we were starting to plan timing and how we would get him there (in this case with an adult accompanying, he wasn’t up to flying alone). On the walk to school one morning he casually started a conversation about the trip, “You know, you can take Amtrak from Boston to Denver. The itinerary is actually pretty good. You take a train to Chicago and then another train to Denver.” I have had so many conversations about trains I just nodded along not really thinking anything of it. But then he continued, still ever-so-casually, “You know, it costs about $650 for one grown-up and one kid to have a sleeper car from Boston to Denver, how much does it cost to fly?” “About $500,” I replied and we left it at that.

That night I checked out his reported costs. It turns out he was slightly wrong. By that time it was about $750 for that exact trip, The Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Chicago, and the California Zephyr from Chicago to Denver. I booked the trip that very night. We had the wiggle room in the budget and $250 seemed manageable considering the happiness a trip like this would bring to R.

I booked that trip in February and we were leaving at the end of June, so R and I then had about 4 months to plan every last detail. He memorized the dining car menus. His Boston grandmother got him a book about North American Rail travel that he read cover-to-cover. We both watched more video tours of Amtrak Roomettes than I care to admit. He carefully studied the differences between the Viewliner Roomette cabins (East Coast trains) and the Superliner Roomette cabins (West Coast trains — our trip involved one of each). He made schedules of how we might spend our time on the train and memorized finer points of the scheduled interim stops. He made packing lists. We both spent so much time thinking and talking about this trip that we might have ever-so-slightly aggravated some other members of our family.

And then, mere days before we were scheduled to leave, I got a call from Amtrak that our train out of Boston was being replaced by a bus due to track work.

I knew that this was pretty normal for Amtrak, especially on the Boston leg of the Lake Shore Limited, but I also knew that R would be heartbroken and quickly started thinking through backup plans. When I called Amtrak back, and they offered to put us on this bus, I asked if instead we could route through NYC which has the other leg of the Lake Shore Limited. They were super-duper nice on the phone, didn’t seem to think it was very strange that we wanted to spend even more time on trains, and hooked us up with a (free) ticket to NYC on the Northeast Regional, and then a connection to the NYC leg of the Lake Shore Limited (which was not going to have track work). I was sure I had scored a major win. We were going to take 3 trains instead of two for the same money! (A practical word of warning: If Amtrak is going to rebook you like this, they are only extra nice to you ONE time — I tried to call later to make a slight schedule adjustment on the northeast regional train that would have been totally fine when I first talked to them, and they said that they couldn’t do it because they’d already rebooked us once — so if you are in this situation be prepared when you call the first time and think on your feet).

Leading up to the trip, we packed carefully. We had one rolling suitcase with R’s clothes and supplies for his 2 weeks in Denver, but everything else that we needed on board we packed in his backpack and mine. We had games, books, audiobooks, and train timetables for entertainment. We had snacks and two carefully selected small stuffed animals. I stashed a few hidden bits of candy in case we needed them to get through any dicey bits. We had my phone loaded up with the amtrak app for schedule and arrival time updates. We had a couple changes of clothes, pajamas and toothbrushes for the train. The morning of June 29th, we donned our matching Amtrak shirts and headed out on the very first Red Line to catch our 6:15am  Northeast Regional at Boston South Station. We were on our way…


(to be continued)



Posted in Going and staying carfree | Leave a comment

An update on our carfree life now (elementary aged kids)

R Catching the elusive early morning 439 bus from Lynn to Nahant

R Catching the elusive early morning 439 bus from Lynn to Nahant

It’s been years since we’ve written here regularly. But we’re still here. The kids are bigger. The jobs, commutes, and schools have changed. Our house is still tiny and we still don’t own a car or drive on a regular basis.

While we’ve done a lot of writing about biking with young kids, and we’ve done a lot of work helping other families figure out how to bike themselves, our approach to keeping life manageable without a car has always been to use a range of approaches. We walk a lot, we ride a lot of buses and trains, we bike, and one or two times a year (almost always vacation) we rent a car.

These days our kids are older (ages 7 & 10), and over the years our approach has shifted to be much more Public Transit reliant than it was when our kids were younger. The infrastructure for safe biking in our area is paltry at best, and we’ve found that while it was manageable when kids were cargo, it has been challenging to get our kids truly independent for daily transportation biking. They are good bikers, very conscientious, very aware on the road, and fabulous on a bike path, but daily kid-transport biking will need to wait until they are older or the biking infrastructure changes substantially. Bikes are still in the mix, but they are not the daily tools they were for us with toddlers and preschoolers.

But as we dialed down the bikes, we were able to dial up the buses and trains and still get everywhere we need to go. This has perks for both of our kids. Our younger kid, now 7, remains an avid public transit enthusiast (yes, this kid), well versed on all the bus and train routes in the MBTA (it’s a little like living with a bus app), and still happy to take the train and bus all day for fun. This kid is only happy when we take more trains and buses (and often advocates for more complicated routes).

Our older kid has just this year (at age 10) gotten to a point where in certain circumstances she can take the bus completely independently. In particular, two days a week she takes herself from school to sports practice on the city bus. If it’s light out after practice, she can take the bus home. If it’s dark, then I meet her at practice and we bus home together. When our kids were little, I hoped this day would come, but now that it’s here, and I see we have a sensible independent kid who can take responsibility for some of her own transportation, it does feel like a wonderful payoff.

There is more to say, but this is where we are now. Carfree life is still possible and enjoyable for our family, even with bigger kids who have activities (and opinions) of their own.

Posted in Benefits of being carfree, Biking with kids, Cambridge and Boston area, Child-related issues, Going and staying carfree, Problems and issues | 5 Comments

Handouts summarizing gear options for biking with small children

In preparation for the Kids Bike 101 workshop we were part of at Bicycle Belle, I developed some handouts that summarize a lot of information about carrying children by bicycle, including input from the other organizers and panelists, Megan Ramey, Brian Postlewaite & shop owner Carice Reddien.**  These handouts consolidate information about overall features, multi-kid compatibility, approximate child ages that each type of bike or accessory works for, compatibility between different devices, and general strengths and weaknesses of different set-ups. The information is about biking with a child attached to an adult bicycle in some way, whether contributing to pedaling or as “cargo.” It does not include information about electric assist options.

I’d like to make this consolidated information more widely available. I garnered this information over the many years that my wife and I have been biking with our family, and through communications with countless other family bikers, including many who I helped to research, try, buy and install all kinds of bikes and kid-hauling accessories. As in all things involving bikes, there is admittedly a dose of opinion in these documents (particularly in my assessment of stability), but I’ve tried to be balanced and include important information about a wide range of options in a condensed way.

If you have further information to add that might be useful to people trying to parse their family-bike options, please leave comments. If you do comment (and please do!) — try to speak from concrete experiences with this type of biking and bike equipment, as opposed to how things seem based on how things look in images or internet reviews. Please also make it clear if you are commenting as a representative of a particular bike company.

Handout 1 (two pages): Table summarizing of the ages and features of kid-hauling bikes and bike accessories, including information on approximate appropriate ages of children for each method, and compatibility between different bikes and bike accessories which is useful for figuring out how to carry multiple children.


Handout 2 (two pages): Summary of the strengths and weaknesses of kid-hauling bikes and bike accessories.


**While I generated this handout in preparation for the workshop at Bicycle Belle, it includes information on bikes well beyond what this particular shop stocks. I do not have an official relationship with Bicycle Belle besides really wanting our own local shop, a shop that knows and cares about the type of  bikes we ride, to succeed. We weren’t officially compensated for hosting to workshop, though Carice did give my daughter a lovely bike bell as a thank you.

Posted in Biking, Biking with kids, Cambridge and Boston area, Child-related issues, Links and reviews | 9 Comments

KidsBike101 Workshop

Bicycle Belle near Porter Square is hosting a KidsBike101 workshop this coming Sunday 5/25/14 at 11am, at 368 Beacon Street. If you are in the Boston area, and curious about getting set-up to ride with your kids in the city, please come check it out. I’ll be serving on the panel discussion, along with our friends and fellow local family bike enthusiasts and local bike advocates, Megan Ramey, founder of Bikabout, and Brian Postlewaite.

More info on the workshop is here: KidsBike101

Registration is here:

There’s a $10 fee, which will include coffee and scones, and participants will receive a 10% discount  coupon for any kid-cycling products purchased at Bicycle Belle within 6 months.

Posted in Going and staying carfree | 1 Comment

Guest Cargo Bike Reviews from a Four-Kid Family, Part 2: Xtracycle Edgerunner

IMG_1561This is part 2 of two guest cargo bike reviews from a Cambridge MA family with four kids. Parents are Katie and Josh. You can see their prior review of the Madsen here. Here Katie describes their experience with the Xtracycle Edgerunner: 

Xtracycle Edgerunner Review

Although Josh had been commuting by bike and hauling the kids on the Madsen for a while, I was a car commuter for a variety of reasons. During Fall 2013, I changed jobs and my baby turned 1, and I was able to become a daily bike commuter as well. Josh does the full morning routine with the kids, and I do the pickups and afternoons. This posed a bit of a challenge for our bike commuting plans, since we only had one cargo bike. You know those logic puzzles where you have one boat and have to get all the people from one side of the river to another? That was sort of our situation, and we did eventually solve our logic puzzle with a system that involved leaving the Madsen at day care every day. We purchased a cheap used bike (known as “junk bike”) which was parked overnight at the day care that Josh would take to work after locking up the Madsen. Then I would ride my bike to day care, lock it up, and take the Madsen home. In the evening, Josh would ride junk bike back to day care and then ride my bike home.

Even though this system was working out pretty well, there were a few issues with it. Josh liked having the option of biking the older boys to school, but with this plan he had to put them on the bus in the morning, which sometimes made him run late. Junk bike was pretty junky and Josh was not happy with that leg of his commute. I also was having a lot of difficulty carrying the cargo that I needed for work on a regular bike. I work between two locations and need to carry a lot with me every day, and would have to strategize which books I had room for each day, and make decisions when packing my lunch about what I could reasonably fit on my bike. I did have pannier bags but they split from the weight of the load after just a few weeks of use.

We started to casually look into other cargo bike options that could carry two kids. The older boys took the bus home from school, so we just needed a bike that could carry a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old. The tricky thing was that it also had to be a bike that was good for the rest of my commute. I work in Somerville, MA which is known as the city of seven hills. Before I started biking, I thought Spring Hill, Winter HIll, and Prospect Hill were just neighborhoods, but it turns out they are (not surprisingly) actual hills. The days I brought the Madsen into work were really difficult, so I knew I had to be careful about what sort of bike I got or my commute would be miserable. I needed a bike that would work well for the first 8 miles of my childless commute, and would also carry the two kids and all their gear home for the final 2 miles of our ride.

I spent some time looking into options at Bicycle Belle, the new cargo and Dutch bike store in Somerville. Based on my internet research, I thought the FR8 from Workcycles would be great for me. It had many nice commuter features I found appealing, like an enclosed chain, lights, sturdy kickstand, and front wheel lock for quick day care pickups. I tried it out with my 1yo on the back and my 4yo on the front saddle and it was an awesome ride. My 4yo son loved it and really wanted me to buy that bike. But I also tried it on some hills without the kids, and found it was not a great fit for a hilly ride, so decided that would not work out.

My kids were getting impatient with the bike trials, but before leaving I tried an Xtracycle Radish at the store that was not for sale. I found that it rode as well as the mountain bike I had been commuting with up the hills, and I had one of my big kids hop on the back and really liked how that felt as well. I had read a bit about the Edgerunner and knew they were not available at the time but would be soon.

Through our local bike email list, I was able to arrange a test ride of an Edgerunner. I tried it without kids and then with two of my kids, and decided that it would be perfect for my situation since it felt great with and without live cargo on the back. Since they were being released slowly, I was able to pre-order one from Bicycle Belle in their September shipment.

When the bike arrived (In October, not September) I had to figure out how to best configure it for my kids. Carice at Bicycle Belle was enormously patient as we tried a number of different options to see what would be the best fit. My initial plan was to do a front Yepp mini for the 1yo with a Hooptie on the back which could hold an assortment of big kids. I tried the bike with the Yepp mini and found that I didn’t like it much at all. It felt fine when I was riding, but getting on and off the bike was very tricky and involved tipping the bike quite a bit, which would have been tricky with kids on the rear. So I opted for a Yepp Maxi seat in the rear. This does have the disadvantage of blocking some access to the side cargo bags with the legs, but it looked like there was still plenty of room for cargo, and I figured I could get a front basket if necessary.

At first, Carice set up the Yepp Maxi within the Hooptie, but to do this the Hooptie had to be on its largest setting. As soon as I saw that, I knew it wouldn’t work out well. I park my bike in my office at work which involves manuevering it through some tricky doorways, and it was hard enough with a regular bike. So I decided to instead get stoker bars for the front rider, which were not yet in stock.

With the Yepp Maxi on the back and a space in front, the bike was well configured for my two normal commuting kids. While waiting for the handlebars to come in, my 4yo was content to hold to the front notch in the flight deck. But I had been hoping I could carry two big kids on the bike on occasion, and this wasn’t going to work with this configuration. I tried putting a pad on top of the Yepp adaptor and riding with two, but the kid in the back did not feel very stable with nothing to hold onto. So the bike still wasn’t just right.

Carice had mentioned that a Yepp seat for older kids was coming in April, and when searching online I found that these Yepp Jr. seats for ages 5+ were already available in Europe. This was appealing to me since it is compatible with the Yepp adaptor, and could be swapped out with the Yepp rear seat to allow an older kid to sit back there since it is so easy to get the Yepp seats on and off. I found one European retailer that was willing to ship the U.S. for a hefty fee, but the price of the seat was so reasonable that it seemed worth it. Then I realized how great it would be to have two Yepp Jr. seats, since I could have two adaptors and switch up the order of the seats when it made sense to (moving the Maxi in front if I just had the youngest or was carrying a lot of cargo and needed more access to the bags). This would also give my 4yo a real seat on the bike. Having him sit on the deck was fine, but he had an annoying habit of saying on the ride home “I’m tired” and then getting really quiet, which was a little worrisome, and I liked the idea of something holding him in. So I ordered two Yepp Jr. seats and one adaptor from hollandbikes.


The Yepp Jr. seats arrived after just a week, and have been a great fit for the bike. My large 4yo fits great in the seat and we attached the footrests to the front. At first, his feet would sometimes bump into mine, but eventually we discovered that if he tucked his feet behind the footrests, his feet stayed in place for the whole ride with no trouble, and he found this equally comfortable.There is a single buckle that goes around his chest (under the arms) which provides a bit of security. Unfortunately I got to test the strap when I fell off the bike going up on a curb with the two little kids on the back, and my 4-year-old was completely unharmed since he didn’t hit the ground in the fall, as was my 1-year-old who was protected in the Yepp seat. Neither kid even whimpered and we all hopped right back on.

I’ve swapped out the rear Yepp Maxi seat for the Jr. to carry two large kids, and even with my two biggest kids on the back, the Edgerunner handles well with both kids. This means we can now seat any combination of two kids on the back of the bike, which will make the bike much more versatile. I know it is technically possible to have more than two kids sit on the back of the bike, so we have limited capacity to only two by installing the Yepp adaptors, but if I ever need a bike for 3-4 kids, we have the Madsen for that. I have noticed when I have two big kids that there is a very slight wobble to handlebars and I grip them a little tighter (also true with the Madsen when fully loaded), but it handles fine with smooth stops and starts. Xtracycle has recently updated their FlightDeck to allow for Yepp seats to be installed directly on it, and I am considering this purchase since it would bring the weight of the kids down a bit, which I think would make for an even smoother ride. I haven’t tried significant hills with kids on the back, but from the mild hills I can tell that it is much easier than the Madsen to get uphill since the bike itself weighs so much less.

We are loving this new addition to our fleet. My commute is great with the bike and I can load it up with everything I need for the day, and then still fit all the kids day care stuff in when I pick them up. Josh and I swap bikes sometimes when I need the Madsen to pick up the older kids at school, and the bike fits him well too. With the electric assist on the Madsen, it is a nice bike to ride with multiple kids, but I’d still go for this bike with one or two kids since it really still just feels like a normal bike with a bit of extra weight on the back.

Posted in Being car-light, Biking with cargo, Biking with kids, Cambridge and Boston area, Child-related issues, How-to, Links and reviews, Problems and issues | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Guest Cargo Bike Reviews from a Four-Kid Family, Part 1: Madsen

4inmadsenThis is the first of two guest cargo bike reviews from another biking family in our area, including parents Josh & Katie, and their four kids ages 9, 7, 4 and 1. They have daily riding experience with two cargo bikes, the Madsen and the Xtracycle Edgerunner, so I asked Katie if she’d be willing to provide reviews. In this post, Katie writes about the Madsen. 

Who we are

I am excited to have been asked to write a blog post about our family bikes for Car Free With Kids, which was such a source of inspiration and wisdom as we were considering options. My husband Josh and I also live in Cambridge, but are actually not car free. We do own a minivan, which is mostly used for weekend Costco trips and my husband’s evening hockey games. We currently both commute by bike and transport our four kids daily by bike. Our children are G (age 9), D (age 7), Z (age 4), and I (age 1).

People often assume Josh and I are incredibly strong and athletic people when they see us biking with a bunch of kids, but that is not really true. We are in decent shape from our bike commutes (8-10 miles round trip), but beyond that we are pretty average. In fact, I’m an asthmatic with some back issues who was usually picked last in gym class. So if we can do it, you probably can too! Since this data is relevant to those considering bikes, I am 5’4″ and Josh is 5’10″ and our kids are either average or large for their ages.

Part 1, Madsen

Our adventures in cargo biking started last fall. Josh was bike commuting with just our 3-year-old after putting the older two boys on the bus, but Z is large for his age and quickly outgrowing the seat limit of 40 pounds. We also had a newborn baby girl who was going to be joining the bike commute the following fall. So we started looking into bikes for 2+ kids. After a bunch of online research, we ended up pre-ordering a Madsen in a Black Friday sale, even though we hadn’t been able to test drive one. Cost was the determining factor in our decision, since the bike was more reasonably priced than other similar alternatives. It was supposed to come in January or maybe February, but arrived in March in a very large box which was shipped to our house.

We weren’t really sure whether the older boys would fit in the bike, but the three boys fit in there great and my husband started biking them to the bus stop in the new bucket bike. They loved it and would beg to bike. Within a few days, he started biking them all the way to school (3 miles away) since the routine was easier than waiting for the bus.

I was much more nervous about the new bike starting out. The first experience I had was just walking the bike with some kids in it, and I lost control and tipped the bike over. Thankfully the seatbelts on the benches work great and kids have always been fine when the bike tips (more on that later). I decided to take the bike out for a ride without any kids in it, and my 6-year-old came for a ride on his bike as well. While we were riding, my son fell off his bike and was scraped up and upset, so I loaded him and his bike into the bucket and biked us home. I was already hooked on the advantages of a cargo bike!

My first impression of the bike was that it felt very different than riding a typical bike, since it was more upright like Dutch style bikes. Also, the frame mounted rack seems very weird when you are not used to it, since it moves separately from your handlebars, so that can be disorienting the first few times. The seat is incredibly comfortable, but I had some trouble at first with it wiggling a bit and every now and then dropping down to the lowest position while I was riding, but thankfully I am short enough that this was still rideable for me. Josh fixed this by tightening the quick release nut.

The following summer, I was home with all four kids and determined to use the car as little as possible. The baby was 10 months old, and we decided to see if she was ready to sit in the bucket. We considered adding in some sort of 5-point-harness for her, but found that she did fine for short rides if we put her next to one of the older boys who put an arm around her while I was riding. This was effective at keeping her stable, and also super cute. (Once she hit about 12 months, this was no longer necessary, but I do still prefer to seat her next to another kid or a backpack because her legs are short and she sometimes tips sideways otherwise.) As the summer progressed, I became pretty comfortable biking with all four kids in the back, though our radius was limited to about 2 miles and hills were really tough. On the bad ones, the older boys would hop out and walk, and then hop back in at the top. I also lived in fear of curb cuts being blocked or some other obstruction in my route, since the bike is very tricky to maneuver around tight spots and can be a bit wobbly at low speeds.

We have had a few more tipping incidents with a fully loaded bike. It tends to happen when I am trying to walk the bike or during loading and unloading. The kickstand is great and very stable once it is engaged, but with 170 pounds of living cargo in the back, I sometimes have had trouble bumping the bike up and over to engage the kickstand. Also when I disengage the kickstand, there’s this scary moment where I have to regain control of the bike before getting on. (I only very recently discovered that if I get on the bike with the kickstand down and push forward, it will disengage on its own, which makes it much easier to manage.) The good news is that of all the times they have been tipped, no one has ever gotten hurt because they are held in by the seatbelts. When it happens, I just unbuckle them, get them out, set the bike back up, and we hop back in. I should also note that Josh has never once tipped the bike, and I’m not sure whether this is due to his height, upper body strength, or generally superior coordination.

IMG_1386We have a few accessories that help make the bike safer. In addition to powerful front and rear lights, we added spoke lights so the length of the bike is visible to cars. We also have an air horn, so we have the option of honking at any cars if needed. Madsen has been claiming for years that their rain cover is coming soon, but we have managed OK without it. If an older kid is in the bike, they hold a large umbrella which covers all four kids. If I’m riding with just the two little ones, I put them in their Muddy Buddy rainsuits (which always stay in their daycare bag for surprise showers), which keep them dry for the ride. We also attached a plastic milk crate with bungee cords to the front rack, which provides much needed storage space since there isn’t too much room left in the bucket when all the kids are in there.

In the first 7 months of daily use, we had a few problems with the bike. I was riding home with the two little kids one day when the front tire suddenly popped. When we brought it in to be fixed the bike shop mechanic said that the rim tape had either shifted or not been put on properly, so there might be some quality issues with assembly at Madsen. The rear tire also needed to be replaced since we didn’t keep it inflated enough for the heavy load and the sidewall wore out. We’ve replaced both tires with much more rugged armadillo tires and tubes that run at higher pressures than what came with the bike (80-100 PSI vs. 40-60.) The rear cassette has also worn down pretty quickly and needs to be replaced soon. But on the whole, it has held up very well.

Just last month, we decided our bike really needed just one more thing — an electric assist system. Josh was biking all four kids to school, and they just keep getting heavier and heavier. I found that hills were so tough that I would scout out routes ahead of time to make sure I could handle them, and wanted a bit more flexibility when biking with multiple kids. After some research, he purchases a Hill Topper Pro-pack kit for $400 which we had installed at our local bike shop for $180, which actually was building an entire new wheel so that now we have a spare front wheel if we get another flat. Installation with the existing wheel would have been about $100. Clean Republic sells an entire assembled wheel for and extra $100 but we would still have had to transfer our disc brake rotor over.

We’ve only had the assist for a little while, but I like it so far. It can only go about 10 miles on a charge, and I have found it often doesn’t make it the whole 10 miles when fully loaded. I was able to bring the kids to swimming lessons in Boston (which previously would have been outside my normal Madsen radius), charged up a bit, and made it home. However, the next time I tried the same routine, we ran out of charge a mile from home. The way the assist works is that there is a little button by the handlebar, and when I press it a motor kicks in that spins the front wheel just fast enough to get me going or give a little extra push. It is especially helpful when starting from a stop, since getting going with kids in the bike before was a very slow process. I also love the assist when I need to ride the Madsen into work. I work in Somerville which has tons of hills, and I used to dread the days I would have to ride the Madsen in, since even without kids it was a very heavy, clunky bike and would add at least 10 minutes to my 25 minute ride. Now I just push the button and pedal up the hills without an issue.

The Madsen was our first introduction to family cargo biking, and it is great for our family. We hardly ever use the car anymore, and our kids love sitting together in the back of the bike. Somehow we can never make it more than a mile in our huge minivan without someone invading another kid’s space and a fight breaking out, but they all sit back there in that little bucket totally content and chatting to each other as they ride through the streets of Cambridge every day. Our oldest at age 9 still fits in the bucket bike great, and we expect to have another year or two of being able to fit all the kids in the back.

Since we have two adults commuting by bike who both need to be able to carry kids, we did just recently purchase a second cargo bike, an Xtracycle Edgerunner, which you can read about in the next installment.

Posted in Being car-light, Biking, Biking with cargo, Biking with kids, How-to, Links and reviews | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Sometimes pedestrians do stupid things for a reason

Near the end (or the beginning if I’m going home) of my regular 50-mile commute (by subway, rail and foot), I have to cross a 3 lane road in Providence, RI. The road falls along my walking route from the train station to my lab. This is the most direct route, and there are often several other people walking the same path along with me. This crossing has a crosswalk, but no light, and no light very close by.

This crossing is often very difficult. Cars on this busy road are not expecting pedestrians. They are moving quickly (I’d guess the average speed when traffic is moving well is 45 miles per hour). Even if one car sees you waiting to cross and stops, granting you right-of-way, cars coming behind will honk at that car and whip around in the next lane. I’ve gotten to the point in navigating this crossing, where I will stand on the sidewalk, 8-10 feet back from the intersection, avoiding eye contact with drivers so that none will be tempted to stop for me, because I know for certain other drivers will not stop. My safety, and likely the safety of the considerate driver who may be rear-ended, will be compromised if I too aggressively attempt to cross at this crosswalk.

So I stand there, averting my eyes, waiting for a clear gap in traffic across all three lanes. I’ve learned that that gap eventually comes, but at rush hour in the early evening, sometimes I have to wait a long time (multiple minutes, far longer than any vaguely reasonable light cycle). I’m often tempted to overestimate my ability to cross safely.

I do wait. I do cross safely. But I’ve seen multiple near misses. In these near misses, I’m certain that the driver was surprised and shocked by how “stupid” the pedestrian was who crossed in front of them. But every pedestrian I’ve seen in this situation (a) had the right of way (we were in a crosswalk!) and (b) had attempted to cross safely in an extremely difficult situation.

Driver awareness matters (it’s a crosswalk! Don’t pass a driver stopped there!). But so does street design. It’s like this intersection is designed hurt people. And sure, maybe I could work to find a way advocate for a pedestrian light there, but I’m just trying to get to work. It get’s tiring. People shouldn’t have to fight for the ability to cross a street on foot. On a reasonably heavily trafficked route near a major transportation hub. At a crosswalk.


Posted in Problems and issues, Sharing roads and paths, Walking | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Alphabetical MBTA Trip, Part I: A through H

Today R and I finally took the “alphabetical” MBTA trip that we’ve been thinking about for some time. This came about when we started talking about different T stations and whether we could travel them in alphabetical order. The rules for this evolved during the planning, and last night I decided that after our start at Alewife, we only would “count” a station if we got off at it. So while we had initially thought we would travel from Alewife to Broadway and then change at Park for the Green Line to Copley, I decided that was “cheating” and that we’d need to take a bus. Luckily R knows the bus system like the back of his hand and suggested that we take the 11. But let me walk you through the trip from the top!

Map of a trip

Alphabetical Trip on the MBTA: A through H

We started our trip by biking to the Alewife Station and then getting in the first car, sitting in the first seats.

Boy standing by station sign

R at Alewife, the start of our trip

We were on a train car with an “8″ on it — I never thought about the numbers on subway cars and buses until R decided that the cars with 8′s were somehow special. Every train car we rode on today had an 8 on it (but not the bus, sadly).

Picture of the number on a train car.

Our first train car of the day, featuring an “8″

We rode on the Red Line to Broadway, and then we got off and caught the 11 bus. This was exciting because neither of us had ever caught a bus at Broadway before so we had to figure out where to wait, and then we got to see a number of exciting buses pass. R knew where they all went. We took the 11 to Chinatown, getting our “C” and then we took the Orange Line to Downtown Crossing, hitting the “D.” There stopped and went to the Food Court to use the bathroom and have an early lunch. We walked back to the Downtown Crossing station and walked through the Winter Street concourse to Park Street (which I decided wouldn’t violate our alphabetical rule) and caught the Green D Line.

Stopped at Broadway

Stopped at Broadway

We rode the D line through Brookline, where we got to see the train yards at Riverside, and through the wilds of Newton to Eliot Station, hitting “E”. We then crossed the tracks and waited for the inbound D line, which we took to Fenway Station, our “F”.

Working train at train yards near Riverside

Working train at train yards near Riverside

A picture of woods through a train window

The wilds of Newton, through the window of the D line

Eliot Station

Eliot Station

From Fenway, we walked to Kenmore Square. I got to show R my old stomping grounds at BU where I went to graduate school, the Citgo sign, and Fenway Park. It was well worth the walk, and we caught another Green Line train to Government Center (“G”) and then got off and took a train going the opposite way to Hynes Convention Center (“H”). By the time we got to Hynes, I was exhausted and ready to be done with the trip. It was a natural stopping place, since there is no subway stop that starts with an “I.” For that, we’ll use the commuter rail.

Hynes Convention Center, at last

Hynes Convention Center, at last

Of course, we still had to get home, so we turned around again, and rode to Park Street and caught the Red Line back to Alewife. We left at about 9am and got home at about 2pm, so the whole trip took about 5 hours. We talked a lot about buses while we were traveling, and I found out that if I gave him a number, chances are that R could tell me where that bus went and how frequent it was.

We had a great time, and it was well worth the $6 or so that I spent in fares. We were in 10 distinct stations and caught eight trains and one bus. We rode Green, Red, and Orange subway trains and sat in the back in six of the trains and in the front in two trains. I’ve already started thinking about our next trip, but I think I’ll need a bit of time to recover from this one.

Posted in Cambridge and Boston area, Child-related issues, Public transportation, Recreation and Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Riding the Rails

Our son, R, is four, and he is obsessed with the entire MBTA transit system. It started with the Red Line, which we take quite frequently because it is our local train. Some time ago, R memorized all of the stations from Alewife to JFK, and they came up frequently in his train play at home: “Last stop, Alewife. Thank you for riding the T. Please remember to take your baloneys.” At some point, I realized that he had never been south of Andrew, and I innocently suggested that we might go to one of the southern ends of the train. We ended up planning together a trip to Mattapan, which you can get to via a loop of “high speed rail” that goes between the end of the red line at Ashmont and Mattapan.

Courtesy of

The high speed rail. Courtesy of

The trip was exciting. The line between Ashmont and Mattapan offers a bumpy and fun ride, through some pretty wooded areas, including a cemetery. Although he’d been talking about visiting “Mattapam” for at least a week, he wasn’t really interested in the station, and wanted to board for our return trip quickly. I managed to talk him off the train again at Butler, where we walked on the bike path for a little while. But I quickly learned that what R loves best about taking the train is, simply, taking the train. In fact, he wanted to get home quickly to play with his toy trains after we stopped to have some lunch with his grandmother in South Station.

Young boy standing next to MBTA sign at Quincy Center

R at Quincy Center station

But his imagination was hooked. Next we had to go to Braintree, and R decided that he wanted to visit Quincy. He started to work on memorizing all of the stops on both ends of the Red Line fork, and he can now recognize most of the station names on the Red Line and can walk into any Red Line station and tell you when the next Ashmont, Braintree, and Alewife trains are coming by “reading” the signs.

Boy lying on floor, looking at MBTA system map

R studying the MBTA system map, planning a trip

It was after our second trip that he started to use the MBTA system map to get creative. He planned a trip that took us from Davis Square on the Red Line to Park Street, on the underground path to Downtown Crossing, and on the orange line to Forest Hills. R had planned for us to take the 31 to Mattapan (and then to catch the high speed rail back to the Red Line), but we ended up deciding to take the 51 instead. We took it all the way to Cleveland Circle, took the C line back to North Station, boarded another Green Line train to Lechmere, and finally hopped on the 88 bus back to Davis Square. It’s like the world’s best outing, where the only real point is riding buses and trains, the only real stop we made was at a coffee shop to use the restroom. Near the end of the trip he was anxious to get home and play trains with his elaborately set-up wood train tracks.

Since then, we have spent hours riding a variety of subway lines and buses, in routes planned by R, with the primary point of the route to be long and to involve the maximum number of connections possible. He has been delighted to ride all of the subway lines in one day, and he has taken trips with friends and with his grandma. He spends hours planning train and bus trips, and can now read the part of the system map that tells him how often the buses come during rush hour and outside of rush hour. He has worn out two different system maps (we just covered a third system map in contact paper in hopes that it will survive his love) and he is excited about the possibility of taking a train trip to New York City to ride their subway system.

If you are a carfree family, in a city that is well-served by transit, consider the entertainment value of the transit itself. R really doesn’t want to use subways and buses to get to someplace, for him the fun is in riding them. He loves to announce upcoming stops, to see who is getting on and off, to choose which car he wants to ride (usually the last, sometimes the first), to count down the minutes as a train approaches, to see new parts of the city from the windows of a bus without the bother of having to stop and do something, and to plan his next trip as soon as he has gotten home. He gets positively giddy when he sees two trains pass going opposite directions, or when two trains arrive in the station at the same time. He also loves things like going to South Station where you can watch trains come in, speculate about future trips, see the model trains in December, and eat the best pizza in the world (which, according to R, is Regina’s Pizza in South Station).

We were also all very excited when recently heard that Adham Fisher, a British “transit racer” and Cambridge teen Miles Taylor who blogs at Miles on the MBTA, set a new record for the shortest time through every MBTA station. It is inspiring and exciting to see that there are older kids and adults who continue to enjoy and challenge themselves through transit. We have gotten excited about people like Joe Eskenazi who rode from Los Angeles to San Francisco on local transit. We’ve been trying to figure out ways to do that on the east coast (say from Boston to DC — though at first pass, it looks like there’s big gap in transit along the East coast between Providence, RI and New Haven, CT, so we might have to bend the rules). Next week, R and I start on a series of “alphabetical” trips, where we visit different MBTA stops in alphabetical order — our first route should hit A-F using the red line, green line, one bus, and the orange line. Stay tuned!

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About two and a half years ago, my job situation changed and I took on a massive commute. I make a 50-mile 2 & 1/4 hour one-way trip by subway and train (sometimes bike & train) to get to work. Given my field, the point I’m at in my career, and the situation of the rest of my family for work & school, this is the right choice for now. Fortunately I don’t have to go physically to the office every day (I go 3-4 days per week), and I have generous friends near my lab who let me stay with them overnight once a week, which eases the commute burden. We’ve arranged our lives so that it’s do-able, but it is still hard.

The commute itself is not so bad — I can work on the train, read my book on the subway, or exercise on my bike (when I ride to the train station, which is honestly not that often). It doesn’t feel like time wasted, and I actually enjoy it. The real problem though is lack of flexibility. When my job was in town, if Angela needed to stay late or couldn’t cover one of her usual drop offs or pick ups for the kids, it was easy for me to cover for her (and vice versa). But now, if I need to cover pickup on a day I’m at the office, I have to leave work at 1:15pm. Which means I just can’t go, so every schedule wrinkle has to be dealt with in advance, and the demands on Angela’s flexibility to cover minor changes have increased. I still take a day home per week with my kids (which makes up for some of the other very late and very early hours that I’m gone), and we’ve worked things out such that there are still days I do the kid-transporting, but we have lost our ability to easily adjust when something changes (and yes, this extra commute burden is part of why our writing here has been so minimal lately…or rather, nonexistent).

Angela has been struggling with some health issues. She’s fine, and is getting better, but making the 5-mile-round-trip-with-some-hills-bakfiets-double-pick-up bike ride twice each week (on H’s hebrew school days) hasn’t been possible for her for the last few months. She was doing it by bus, but that took a lot longer and then the evening was very rushed and unpleasant, and the kids got to bed too late. I tried to figure out if I could do the hebrew school pick up if I got my bike parked in just the right spot and caught the right train, but the timing just didn’t work, at least not without a solid last minute back-up plan if I ended up stuck on the red line at ten to six. We arranged a few one-off pickups by other parents, but it’s hard to keep asking over and over, and the logistical burden felt greater than just taking the bus and dealing with the late evening.

One evening I was out with my friend J. I told him about our pickup struggle, and my frustration about not being able to just cover it. He said, “Wait, why don’t you guys pick up our kid at the daycare right by your house and we’ll pick up H. We have to pick up our older kid at hebrew school anyway. Then we can come by your place trade kids. That would actually be better for us because C (J’s wife) could leave work a little later.”

Since this plan was mutually beneficial, it seemed like it might actually work in a more stable way, so we tried it. For about a month, we’ve been picking up our friends’ 3 y.o. at a daycare right near our house, and they’ve been picking up our 2nd grader at hebrew school a couple miles away twice a week.

And it’s working. Our friends say it’s easier (or at least not worse) from their end (and I trust they’ll tell us when/if that changes, especially now that Angela is feeling somewhat better and our need is less acute). From our end, the change has opened up some breathing room in our week, and provided some needed relief from the logistical (and physical) burden of getting through our week.

Angela brings the two younger kids home from pickup (by bakfiets, the 3 y.o. loves the bike ride), gets a jump on dinner, and I walk in just as our friends are arriving to trade kids. Even though there are often 6 people (besides me) in the house when I walk in, it feels less tense and less chaotic. The kids are happier. Angela is happier.

This change has been a lovely thing for our kids. There are a total of four kids in both of our families. We see each other pretty often in various constellations, at hebrew school, and at our religious community (the Hav), and socially with other families and friends. In all of that coming and going, I now realize that our younger two kids have never had time together just them. Now, twice a week, they get a relaxed 45 minute chunk of time to play together at our house without older siblings around. Our son is about a year and a half older than their’s, and it’s been lovely to see him start to see J & C’s kid as an actual person, and to get some time as “the big kid.” They play beautifully when they aren’t distracted by trying to get the older kids to include them. J & C report that the bigger kids chat pleasantly on the way home, and that it’s a different dynamic than pickup with their own two kids competing for parental attention.

I’ve been thinking about why we had to get to such a frustrated place to realize this arrangement was sitting right before our eyes, that we could actually team up with another family to make both of our evenings easier. I’ve wondered about this before, like the times another parent takes H after school because we’ve had a schedule snafu (or we do the same for them), and the kids have such a great time I leave thinking “we really shouldn’t wait for things to go haywire to do this.”

We think and talk a lot about community. One of the reasons we choose to live without a car is that it helps us connect with and build our local community, just by living our everyday lives. Living carfree sometimes means our life is easier than it would be without a car (say when we aren’t stuck digging our car out after the snowstorm), and sometimes means our life is harder (that double pickup wouldn’t have been a problem if Angela isn’t feeling well if she could just drive). Sometimes it means we rely on friends with cars (say, when they come to visit us from the suburbs instead of us going to them, or when C does the hebrew school pickup by car).

But for of all our talk of community, it’s still hard to ask for help. I don’t want to burden other people, especially other parents, who are pretty much all as stretched thin in the evenings as we are, especially if part of the reason we’re sruggling in a situation is that we’re still insisting on going without a car (though, even if we wanted to, we still can’t afford one anyway).

In this arguably small arrangement, this twice a week that we have someone else’s kid on our bike, and they have one of ours in their car (or on the bus), I see a part of how community is built out of the challenges, that we got to build this connection a little more deeply because something was too hard for us to do on our own. I see now that this has been true on a larger scale over the last couple of years, which have been hard ones for our family, on several fronts — hard, but really good. I feel like I’ve let so much go: any PTA meeting ever, attendence at shabbat services, social groups and projects that I used to help organize, writing here. I’ve been knocking myself for these failings, for not doing my part to build the communities that I say I believe in. But I can see also that friendships have been forged more deeply in this time, and that counts too. For this, I am grateful. For this, and for the way our friends’ son comes happily with us at pickup, grins all the way back to our house on the bike, and then slips peacefully into discussion about the proper way to build subway stations out of magnatiles and wooden railroad tracks.

Posted in Benefits of being carfree, Best of, Biking with kids, Child-related issues, Going and staying carfree, Living locally, Problems and issues, Public transportation | Leave a comment