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.

IMG_1552

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 , , , | 2 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 http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannyman/2699949371/

The high speed rail. Courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannyman/2699949371/

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!

Posted in Child-related issues, Public transportation, Recreation and Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

bikepool

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

Biking isn’t really my thing

“I don’t really like biking all that much.” I said this the other day at the playground at my daughter’s school and was met with shock and outrage. So I thought I should explain myself.

I bike a lot. Most often, I am riding a bakfiets, with or without my kids. Because I ride an interesting bike, I talk to people every day about my bike. I talk enthusiastically. I love my bike. I feel happy riding it, and I like being noticed on it.

But I don’t really like “biking.” Perhaps that makes no sense, because I’m sort of a biking evangelist. Biking is a big part of how we get around as a carfree family. But here’s the thing. Think of all of the people that you know that own cars. How many of them love cars? Some of them do, but lots of them feel “meh” about cars, and I’m betting some of those car owners actually hate their cars. Cars are just how most people get around, you don’t have to be that excited about them to make use of them.

Bikes are different. Biking as an adult is strictly a recreational or sporting activity for most people. It comes with an obsession with gear and funny outfits. There just aren’t that many utility and family bikers (although our numbers are growing), and that means that most of us had to work hard and obsess a fair amount to find ourselves with the bikes that we use every day. Thus many of the family and utility bikers out there love biking and the biking culture because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have the lifestyle that they have.

On most days I get from place to place by biking on an 80 pound of bike with 90 pounds of kids plus my own weight. Frankly, that seems like plenty to me. I don’t usually want to take a bike ride on the weekend for fun, much to the sorrow of my husband. Weekends are for resting, not biking. I don’t want to think about bike gear. Actually, I do aspire to buy a nice bike for my own non-cargo, non-kid use, something that looks good and doesn’t weigh a million pounds. But I don’t care about the brand or what bells and whistles it might have. Like most car owners, I want transportation that looks nice, works, and isn’t more than I can afford. When it comes time to buy, I’ll talk to my friends and ask Carice at Bicycle Belle for advice.

I don’t want to do group bike rides, or hang out at most bike events. I tend to feel out of place at those because of the whole not-really-into-bikes thing. I do enjoy talking to other people who have a similar relationship to biking, like Stacy Bisker of A Simple Six, who I got to meet and chat with the other day. I have enjoyed the family biking events that I have been involved in, which have given me a chance to connect with other people in a similar boat.

So what do I want out of biking? I want roads that are safe for me, and that are built with my needs as a biker in mind. I want a bike that is comfortable to ride in the city, one that fits my small body, has a step-through frame, and lets me haul kids and other stuff. I want to be able to occasionally hang out and swap stories with other people that ride like me, because it’s the way they get around town. I want to sometimes ride my bike in a parade.* I have many of these things, and I am grateful for them, even if biking isn’t really my thing.

Woman on a bike made up to look like a boat

*This is what I love about biking

Posted in Biking, Biking with cargo, Biking with kids | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

You can buy a bakfiets in Boston! (actually Somerville)

The Boston area has been sorely lacking a true cargo and family bike shop. Ferris Wheels in Jamaica Plain has been stocking Yubas for a long time (which is great!), but that was the only style of cargo bike (at least one suitable for carrying kids) that was reliably available for test ride in a retail shop in the entire Boston metro area. Anyone shopping in earnest for a cargo or family bike was stuck trying to network to arrange test rides with other bike owners behind the scenes. We provided very many of those test rides, sometimes so frequently I felt like it was my second job (only no one paid me for it — though we did once get a half-dozen delicious eggs from a friend’s backyard chickens for our trouble!). After all that work, you were then stuck taking a road trip or paying a big shipping fee to get the bike into town (sometimes several hundred dollars).

But our time has finally come!

A couple months ago, Bicycle Belle* opened near Porter Square in Somerville,  at the intersection of Beacon and Oxford (368 Beacon St, Somerville).

Longtime blogger at Biking in Heels has opened a shop filled with beautiful city bikes, clever accessories and CARGO BIKES.

For family biking, the shop is currently stocking Workcycles Bakfiets (short and long), the Fr8 and the Gr8, Xtracycle (including Radish and Edgerunner, the Edgerunner isn’t on the floor yet, it will be soon). As of my last visit, they also had a Kinn mid-tail on the floor. The shop is also stocking the kind of bike accessories family bikers need, like yepp maxi and mini seats, the burley piccolo trailer bike (this is what we have behind our bakfiets), bern helmets including kid sizes, the lazer bob helmet (one of the few helmets that actually fits small toddlers), and handlebar coffee cup holders (that last one is important).

I’ve also been really impressed by how much the shop owner, Carice, has reached out to the local family and cargo bike community. She’s really listening to what we want and need, and is stocking her shop based on hard-won knowledge about what actually works from those of us on the front lines. Several friends have also been working with her to find bikes that will work for their families, and from what I hear, Carice has been working to make sure they get bikes that will really work for them.

We couldn’t be happier to have a shop like this in the neighborhood…and to pass some of the local cargo bike test ride traffic her way. If you are in the market, or just want to try out one of these great bikes, then pay Bicycle Belle a visit.

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*Other than some snacks at the grand opening party, we’ve received no compensation for this post, and weren’t asked to write it. We just think this shop is awesome and really want it to succeed.

Posted in Biking with cargo, Biking with kids, Cambridge and Boston area, Links and reviews | 3 Comments

This year’s offering to the winter visibility g-ds

It seems like every winter I end up forking over at least a hundred bucks to feel sort of visible out on the road after dark (and this time of year, a lot of our bike riding is after dark). This year is all about adding reflective tape to everything. In a city environment like the one we ride in there is a lot of ambient light, and that light is often moving (e.g. headlights). I’ve noticed on other riders that in this setting reflective material can go a long way. I got particularly inspired on our helmets. Check out how awesome my family looks in these!

H (in the blue helmet) requested flowers. R (in the red helmet) requested a train and flowers. Angela (in the purple) didn’t know what she wanted, but I ended up going for a sort of mythological motif, with wings and lightning bolts. For those wanting to try this on their own, I used “Reflexite” tape** ordered from this place, and just cut out the designs. I did it all freeform, so I can’t really offer patterns (just inspiration), but if you’re at all crafty, I’m sure you can come up with something! Note that this particular tape comes in many widths and many colors.  I ordered both 1″ and 2″ widths, but could have done all these designs with the 1″ width.  One roll of the 1″ tape would do a lot of helmets (the “hundred bucks” quote above also involved reflective tape for coats, Xtracycle bags, and bakfiets box, and a bunch of leftovers…)

You can tell I improved substantially after my first attempt on my helmet, before I was inspired to get fancy by H’s request for flowers (I’m trying to tell myself it looks punk rock…):

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**I didn’t do an exhaustive research project to find this stuff, mostly just scanned a couple bike forums to find out what other people liked, and it seems to do the trick. If anyone else has a favorite reflective tape, please speak up in comments.

Posted in Biking, Links and reviews | 4 Comments

Xtracycle Hooptie: Initial Impressions

We set up our Xtracycle almost 5 years ago, when our now 6 1/2 year old daughter was not quite 2. It’s hard to explain how different the cargo and family bike market was back then (or the family-biking-blog scene, for that matter). The only true extended frame on the market was the Big Dummy, though the Kona Ute came out shortly after we set up our Xtra. There was no Yuba. There was no Madsen. I think the only place to buy a bakfiets in the US may have been Clever Cycles, though to be honest, I didn’t even know what a bakfiets was.

The Xtracycle freeradical extension had been around for a long time by then, but even so, we felt like we were blazing new ground. The only child seat that Xtra sold back then was the bobike maxi, which didn’t even attach to the deck itself, and which, as it turned out, didn’t work on our bike (that was one of our first experiences of the sometimes difficult interactions between smallish bikes and bike accessories), and with no other options, we got resourceful and got a great double deck seat from Rob Hanson, one of several resourceful folks making DIY wooden seats (these days you can attach two Yepp Maxi’s to an Xtracycle deck or two Peanut Shells to a Yuba, but back then, there was no way on the market to strap in two smaller kids to the deck of an extended frame bike).

Rob’s seat served us well for many years, though, as we’ve documented here on occasion, we struggled some in general hauling two kids on an longtail, especially as the younger one got bigger, and especially Angela. She is tiny (5′ 1″) and had trouble getting on and off the bike as we did not have a step through frame. Tiny-ness on longtails works against you in some other ways also, because the more weight and upper body strength the adult rider has, the easier any weight rear on the bike (like that second kid) is to handle, and even for me (I’m about 5′ 5″ and a little stronger), starts, stops and slow speeds required a lot of care. With one kid, the Xtra was fabulous for us. With two? Well. You all already know we got a bakfiets.

The bakfiets immediately became our go-to for hauling two kids. It is extremely stable and secure, even at low speeds and stops. Wiggles from kids barely impact the handling at all. And while, yes, it is beastly heavy, we find the strength it requires is strength we have. That is, even though Angela is little, she has the strength to power up hills on it heavily loaded with the handling so stable. What she didn’t have was enough upper body strength to confidently handle the longtail, so perhaps strangely, we find that the heavier bike actually requires less overall strength (which doesn’t always mean we’re happy riding it up hills, but you get the idea).

But even with our love of the bakfiets, our Xtra still got some use. I would grab it to run errands when I didn’t want that extra weight (the bakfiets weighs about 80lbs, our old Xtra set up weighed about 45). I’d grab it if I needed to haul 1-kid, especially if I also needed to pick up groceries, but neither of us would ride it with two. Our bigger kid had outgrown the straps I’d fashioned for Rob’s seat, and the younger one was getting close. Now, I could have made bigger ones, but at some point, it starts to seem really silly to strap in a 6 year-old on a bike deck, and it was starting to become clear it might be time to move on from the deck seats, beautiful as they are (and I’d like to note here that Rob’s work on those seats was really good. We rode hard with those seats for many years, and stored the bike outside, mostly covered in rain but not always perfectly covered, and the seats held up beautifully. He did really great work).

A usual solution here would be to switch back to the snap deck, and add stoker bars. Unfortunately, again with the short adult rider thing, Angela rides with the seat very very low, and we would have had to fashion some sort of DIY solution to raise the handles far enough for a rider on the deck (the standard Xtra stoker bar wouldn’t have worked). That certainly would have been possible, but as with many DIY projects around here, the list is far longer than I have time for, and after 6 months or so of knowing I needed to figure it out, I had made zero progress. The other problem with a stoker bar is that it’s harder to figure out how a second kid can hang on (and our younger one likes to feel secure, so he’s not a very good candidate for just holding onto the bigger kid, though that works for some families just fine), and I had some hope the bike could be resurrected as a two-kid bike once the rear-kid could move farther “up” the deck.

So, when Xtra came out with the Hooptie — a handrail that goes all the way around the deck, we went for it. Specific perks in our situation are that it does not need to attach to the seat post at all (which would have made it not work on our bike), and gives a secure place for a rear-seated kid to hold on. Great DIY versions of this have been out there for a while, so I’m glad to see Xtra pick up on this good idea and make it for those of us without either access to a machine shop or the time/inclination to fashion one together ourselves.

I got it installed a couple weeks ago, and the install was pretty successful. I don’t think I swore at all (bonus hint: I recommend installing both brackets pretty loosely to the deck, and installing *both* side rails, before firmly tightening the bolts at the end of the deck — in contrast to the official directions that suggest just to install one side bar before tightening).

After a couple weeks riding with the hooptie, I have a few impressions. First, the sizing on this thing is great. Both our kids fit in great, including the bigger one, and I see this serving us very well for many years. The Xtra still rides beautifully with one kid, and now with the hooptie, either kid can fit. This really expands the range of daily errands we can do on this bike easily (with H solidly grown out of the previous seat straps, we’d only been using this bike with R). As far as riding with two, it is better than our old seat, but still a challenge. Even with the back kid scootched up a little bit on the deck, it’s still solidly outside the range that Angela can handle comfortably, but it makes enough difference that I can do it again. The bakfiets is still my first choice for two, but if it’s not available or the logistics of the day work better for us both to have a two-kid bike, I will grab this one and be glad to have the option. I had been a little concerned about loading the kids on the bike, but find that with the kickback and me standing near the bike to stabilize it, both of our kids are capable of climbing in themselves (have the one seated at the rear climb in first). To dismount, I do tend to help, but lifting them down is easier than lifting them up.

So, overall, I’m happy with the purchase. It moved our Xtra into this new stage of our lives, and makes the bike more useable for more types of errands now that either kid can fit. I really like having a lighter 1-kid-plus-cargo option (we find the Xtra is actually better and more flexible than the bakfiets for cargo). This is still not going to be our go-to two-kid bike, but it’s good to have the option available in a pinch, and those bars on the top are going to be awesome for strapping in way more groceries. I’m glad Xtra is paying attention to the needs of biking families. This was definitely a need, and they filled it well.

[Also, given my notes on challenges of longtail handling above, I'd like to give a mention to the not-quite-out-yet new Xtracycle EdgeRunner. Check out Hum of the City's impressions here. It really looks like this bike could fix several of the longtail handling problems for small riders and/or those riding with two kids. The kids are held much lower on the bike over a 20" rear wheel, which should really reduce the difficulty with weight to the back of the bike, and the lower standover height should make the bike much more suited to smaller adults. If we were in the market for a longtail right now, I'd definitely be waiting to give this one a try]

Posted in Biking, Biking with cargo, Biking with kids, Links and reviews | 1 Comment