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

Co-rider: the good, the bad, the ugly

I really love riding with our youngest (R, now almost 3 1/2) on a front-mounted bike seat. It’s pretty much my favorite way to ride with one kid, provided we don’t have to haul much stuff with us. Thus, I was pretty sad when it became clear he was growing out of his bobike mini. Like most front-mounted seats, typically-sized kids tend to grow out of that one at about age 3.

Other parents report feeling wistful and a maybe little sad when, say, their children wean, or no longer fall asleep in arms, or start rejecting hugs at school drop-off. Me? I have that feeling when my kids grow out of bike seats or learn to ride on their own. Goodness knows what I’m going to do when they no longer need to be attached to an adult bike to ride on the street. I’ll be a total mess (and very proud).

So, when a co-rider, one of the very few front-mounted bike seats that claims to work for children over age 3 (the manufacturer claims usability for about ages 2-5) came up used for a good price on a local list-serve, I jumped on it, and crossed my fingers this seat might get me one or two more years.

The co-rider is an updated version of the bike-tutor, which was reviewed favorably by totcycle. My understanding is that the co-rider was intended to be compatible with a broader range of frames.

That seems like a nice idea, but this report at Hum of the City indicates that may well not be the reality. On their (extremely step-through) Breezer bike, the seat failed dramatically, tipping backwards while they were riding in traffic. Amazon reviews report a theme of similar problems. The guy we bought our seat from claimed not to have any issues on a somewhat slanted (but not step-through) top-tube, but we recently found out that a local bike friend had exactly this issue with the seat tipping back on a mountain bike with only a moderate slope to the top tube.

Even with all this info out there, I still wanted to try the seat. Why? In all the reports, the problem is with a slanted top tube, and my old road bike has a completely horizontal top tube. From what I could tell of the seat design from pictures, on my bike, the seat would be completely supported by the tube, and thus I had a reasonable hope that any reasons behind the reported failures wouldn’t apply in my case. So, what did I find once I had the seat in hand?

The Good:

As it turns out, my expectation was reasonable. On my bike, the install was pretty smooth (took about a 45 minutes), the entire seat is supported by the top tube and the install feels extremely secure. I’ll feel comfortable using the seat until R can’t fit in it anymore. With the Bobike, as R got taller, his helmet would bob around in front of my chin. It was OK, but inconvenient. I could have solved this issue with more wraparound handlebars, but that was more effort than I was willing to put in for a seat he would grow out of soon. In contrast, with this seat, R sits low on the front of the top tube, so he is no longer up so close to my face. We also have less conflict over where his hands should go, because he has his own handlebars (I keep meaning to give him his own bell). My knees touch his sides slightly when I ride with him, but it’s pretty minimal, and is not an issue at all when he’s not on the bike because the seat itself is quite narrow. Overall, for my particular bike, I’m really happy to have this seat so I can ride happily with my pre-schooler in front of me (and put off the reality that my kids are growing up) just a tad bit longer.

The Bad:

That’s the good stuff. But there is definitely bad stuff. I’m pretty decent at figuring out how to install seats, but I’ve seen some impressively poorly installed seats out there, and part of me wondered if maybe the people having trouble with this seat were just doing it wrong.

After examining the seat myself, I’d say that no, they weren’t doing it wrong. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this seat should absolutely not be used on any bikes except those with completely horizontal top tubes. Now, why is that?

It looks like in an attempt to make this seat compatible with step-through frames, this seat is made with a hinged support. This support runs between a clamp to the top tube and the base of the seat. That’s all well and good. The problem is, at both ends, this support can rotate freely, and is only clamped in place by a bolt. There is nothing in the design of the seat that truly locks the support at a specific angle. There’s a paltry attempt at introducing enough friction between the pieces (a pattern of ridges between connecting components where the bolt goes through), but there is no way this is strong enough to hold up reliably to the regular bouncing all of our bikes take out on the road, especially with a 40 pound child bouncing on top of them.

After examining the seat, my take is that this problem will be more of a concern on some bikes than others. For example, on the Hum of the City bike, the top tube on the breezer is so steep, the bracket couldn’t even really provide true support even if the bolts were super tight. I’d say this bike is just solidly outstide a reasonable range of compatibility (which the manufacturers should have made clear). With every bump the child’s weight would push the seat backwards, and with such a steep tube, the fall could be (and sounds like it was) dramatic when the bolts fail. On a bike with a less dramatic slant, the pressure on those bolted hinge points would be much less, but it would still be there, and it’s still hard for me to imagine any way to keep the seat tight enough to be safe on every single ride, and as I said, our friends with a moderate slant on their mountain bike top tube had exactly this problem (and returned their seat).

With all this said, I’m guessing some people have done OK with this seat on more step-through frames. They certainly claim as much in their amazon reviews. Maybe they check the bolts every time. Maybe they are very very strong or used a torque wrench when they installed the seat. Maybe they just don’t ride very often, so they either haven’t experienced the problem or their install is still holding up. But for my part, as just another biking parent (but one who has seen and installed a fair number of seats and rides more days than not) I see this as a very real and dangerous design flaw, and do not recommend using the seat on any bike that does not have a completely horizontal top tube. I feel this strongly enough that I sometimes feel guilty having the seat on our bike, as someone might see it on our bike, look up the info, see the manufacturers claims of broad compatibility, and install on an unsuitable bike. Maybe I should put a note on one of the leg guards.

The Ugly:

Despite my enjoyment of this seat on my particular bike, wow, it sure is ugly. And heavy. Much heavier than it needs to be. But I’m still keeping it, and using it, and when I hand it on, I’ll make sure it goes to someone using it on an appropriate bike.

Other options:

Since this option will only really work on a select group of bikes, are there other options for riding with a kid in front after the standard front seats are too small? I know of the a couple. The ibert claims a weight limit of 38 lbs, which will get you to something like age 4 by weight for many kids. However, I understand from friends who have ridden with this seat that kids tend to grow out of the seat by size well before this limit. There is also a new seat on the market, the tyke toter, that claims to work for the same age range as the co-rider (about 2-5). I have not yet heard any first hand reports (please speak up if you have tried it), but just eyeballing it, I’m not sure how much I’d trust that single clamp onto the seat post as the only support for the seat. I hear that the dutch have nice simple seats that are just a saddle that clamps to the top tube and footrests for the downtube. I don’t know where one might find the dutch version in the states, but I do know that some folks over here do the same thing DIY. Other than that, I’m out of ideas, but this is a common need for which I often wish I had better suggestions (especially for folks trying to ride with two kids on one standard adult bike, where rear seats are incompatible with trailer bikes). If you know of another solution, please speak up.

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***As with all the info on this blog, these thoughts are offered as the opinion of one parent biking with their kids. This review wasn’t sponsored (none of ours are). As always, use your own judgment to decide what is safe for your family.

 

Posted in Biking with kids, Child-related issues, Links and reviews | 10 Comments

Come ride with us! (Honk! parade 2012)

For years we have crashed the Honk! Parade, an amazing non-motorized parade from Davis in Somerville to Harvard Square in Cambridge, full of raucous activist street bands from all over the world, and the purpose of which is to “Take back the streets for Horns Bike and Feet!” That’s a sentiment we can get behind here at CFWK. The parade is part of the annual Honk! Fest (full schedule here) starting tonight (Thursday) and running all weekend.

This year, we’re more organized, and have our own parade contingent of cargo and family bikers! Please come ride with us! You don’t need to be on a fancy bike, though if you have a weird or interesting one, we’d sure love to see it. Kids can come on their own bikes provided they bring a grown-up, and they ride well enough to navigate a crowd and follow instructions.

If you’d like to join us, please contact us at carfreewithkids at gmail and we’ll give you the details.

Hope to see you there!

(Also, as an added bonus, the bikes will be right in front of my brass band, and there’s a great story about our band and Honk! on radio boston and the boston globe)

 

Posted in Going and staying carfree | 2 Comments

True Life Stories of the Carfree: Leigh and her family of four, West suburbs of Chicago

How is it August already? Our summer has been so filled with fun that we keep getting too distracted to write about. Instead, we’ve got another carfree family for inspiration for us and all of you. Leigh writes below about being a carfee family of four that relies primarily on walking and transit. If your family is carfree, we all need your inspiration, so drop us a line at carfreewithkids@gmail.com. We promise we’ll try not to wait two months to publish your post!


There are four of us, my husband and I, Monkey who is three, and Bee who is one and a bit. We live in the near west suburbs of Chicago. On a quiet afternoon you can hear the ‘L’ train announcements and the Metra commuter rail bells from the station an block and a half away. There are a few bike lanes and good sidewalks. My husband works downtown takes the train to and from work. He prefers the commuter rail with its nicer cars and faster ride, even though it runs less frequently and he has a longer walk at the end. It is a 35 minute commute door to door. If he misses that train, or is traveling at an odd time he takes the CTA L train (subway). I stay at home with the kids (I work online for the wonderful Camberville Diaper Lab). Day to day we get everywhere by foot and stroller. For occasional trips downtown, to target, the airport or to museums we take the train and bus. We take the CTA train and walk though a park to get to church on Sundays. We use Zipcar a few times a year.

Most families around here have two cars, though there is a sizable minority with just one. I know no other car free families, though we do know a few who try to go car-lighter. There are a number of hard core bike commuters in our church, but only one family who bikes with their school age children (and they have a mini van on the side). It is common here to commute by train to downtown.

We have been car free from day one, ever since we got married in university with no drivers’ licenses. My husband has a license now, but I have never gotten around to learning to drive well enough. We have car-sat a minivan for the past two summers for friends who spent the summer in Europe and have only on street parking. It has been interesting to try it, but in the end not worth owning one.

We have done a lot of planning to build our car free life. My husband was in law school in Cambridge, where it is pretty easy to live carless. We don’t have family in the US so we could choose to live anywhere after graduation (or anywhere with big law to pay the loans). We needed it to not be too hot (south, DC) or too expensive (New York) and be good for being carfree, which narrowed it down to Chicago and Boston. We picked our suburb for the tree lined streets, real main street (complete with movie theater) and loads of families. We bought our first house recently and chose it specifically for being so close to our life (public transit, shopping, libraries). My first thought as I looked at a house was how it would work for the commute and the grocery shop. Three grocery stores are within an easy walk (20 minutes) with two more in under 40. Libraries, preschool and the Y are also easy walks as is that full main street. The amazing town pool is less than half and hour’s walk. We picked a preschool before the house and since we did not know exactly where we would be I ruled out several great schools because they could very well end up being just too far to give me any time off during the school day.

The cost of car free living for our family is missing things. We are not infrequently late for church because we just missed the train and have to wait 12 minutes for the next one. Every outing outside our normal fifteen minute walk zone takes more thinking and planning. Is it worth the effort? Planning the train/bus route, arrange the zip car, find a ride etc. rather than just getting in the car and going? We do miss things that we could do with a car easily. Some, like the zoo, are good things, others, like regular Target runs, we are probably better without.

And that is the other side of being car free; we don’t do too much because it is more work. I don’t go to Target every week and be mesmerized by the giant bulls eye. We don’t have activities every day because we cannot walk that much or that far, so we don’t get worn out, and we have enough down time. And we get to stop and smell the roses, gently touch the pumpkins, talk to people and count the rectangles. We walk through a rather dodgy part of Chicago to get to church and being on the ground, experiencing the kindness and friendliness of people makes us view it very differently than if we only looked at it from the car window. Oh, and my pants keep getting too big.

I am pretty sure I have not been on a bike since I was pregnant with my first child. We are stroller people. We have three, including a lightweight umbrella UppaBaby G-lite (the moped) for  travel and downtown with one child and a jogger (the race car/magical put the preschooler to sleep machine). The workhorse is my UppaBaby Vista (my Land Rover), both as a single and now with the extra seat or the wheelie board as a double. I literally wore the rubber off the tires in the first 20 months. I have replaced (mostly under warranty) several parts, bough just about every accessory and when the 2011 was on Zulilly upgraded to a new one. For the first few months as a double we had the kids both in seats facing each other. Monkey preferred the lower seat and liked to compare his feet to his sisters. After about two and a half he was happy on the wheelie board and that is how we have been getting around for most of the past year. He can even fall asleep standing on it with his head in Bee’s lap.

In winter, we do hooded fleece jackets, hats, mitts (when the stars align and they will stay on), fleece booties — all in a Bundleme, sometimes with a blanket inside. On super cold/windy days, I add the rain hood for a greenhouse effect.  This winter for standing on cold days, Monkey wore a one piece snowsuit (aka the Astronaut suit). He was always dressed warmly enough for his time on the preschool playground. In the summer when Bee was tiny, we would often go outside with her in the bassinet and a damp cloth over top to keep her cool and happy.

The Vista has a huge basket and I keep the footrest for the rumble seat in it to provide a more supported shelf. We can get 2 gallons of milk, 2 cartons of OJ and two big bags of groceries in it. We usually shop at Trader Joe’s and Monkey pushes the little cart around and we fill that up while I push the stroller. It is so easy not to have to get the baby in and out of anything.

Both kids love to sleep in the strollers. When Monkey was a toddler he could fall asleep in the stroller just sitting in the hall, no walk required. They can stay asleep in when we get home and I can leave the stroller in the hall, mudroom, or back yard (with a window open).  Bee often sleeps in the stroller from preschool drop off to pick up.

Posted in Going and staying carfree, Public transportation, True Life Stories of the Carfree, Walking | 5 Comments

Barriers to biking

When I talk to people about getting around more by bike, or any efforts to move towards less car dependence (but here the more relevant aspect is biking), I often say that even if things seem more inconvenient at first, you really can get to a place where life is more convenient, that it’s worth the effort to get over the initial barriers.

But for a long time, my own experience didn’t necessarily reflect that. Ever since I was about 18, with the exception of pregnancy, biking has been a primary mode of transit for me. For me, it’s always been a choice of more convenience, not less. I grabbed a bike when I was 18 because it got me where I was going faster than a bus. Even when I had a car, parking on my college campus was enough of a pain that I almost always chose to bike instead, and the times I didn’t, I regretted it.

But recently, due primarily to major changes in my commute, that calculation changed.

My neglected steed, not much to look at but perfect for parking downtown


Due to the vaguaries of academic life, as of September, my job moved from an easy 30 minute commute by bike or subway, to another city entirely that I get to (on the 3 days a week I go) by commuter rail. I didn’t get much choice in the matter, and after thinking through the resulting fallout, and what we could and couldn’t fit into our lives, we decided to make it work.

The whole thing is working way better than we expected, but my full commute takes about two and a quarter hours one way. I can work for the hour or so that I spend on the train, but it’s not really practical to work during my time on the subway to get to the train, or on the 15 minute walk (up a very VERY large hill) to my lab, so I still lose a fair amount of time. If I drove, I estimate that once parking time was taken into consideration, the trip would take about an hour and a quarter, involve an unpredictable amount of traffic, and that time would be completely lost for work, so for me, especially given how much I hate driving and absolutely love trains, dealing with the longer commute by rail is worth it (setting aside for a moment that we probably couldn’t afford to buy a car anyway).

But this isn’t a post about the commuter rail. With this shift in commute, I first attempted to ride downtown to catch my train at South Station. I thought it would be faster and more reliable than the subway, but in reality, at my usual pace with usual traffic, I found that biking added about 10 minutes to the trip. With a commute this long, that starts at 6:30 am, those 10 minutes mattered. A lot. Even worse was biking out of downtown at rush hour at the end of a 12 hour day, which took about 20 minutes longer than the subway, and was damned unpleasant.

It looked like my choice was a longer commute, including biking in downtown traffic at its worst, or a shorter commute where I got to sit on the subway reading my book. I picked the same thing most everyone would pick: reading my book on the red line.

This worked OK. We found our sea legs with this new schedule (H started kindergarten at the same time, so we also entered the realm of double drop-offs and double pick-ups for the kids, and the accompanying scheduling vaguaries of random half-days and scheduling after school care). Amazingly, the commute proved workable (especially because I don’t have to make it every day). But as the year wore on, the lack of biking and the resulting lack of exercise started to get to me. Sure, I was riding with the kids on the weekends and for drop-offs and pick-ups, but it wasn’t enough. I was getting antsy.

I knew I’d be happier and healthier if I bit the bullet and rode downtown. I’ve been riding forever, so of all people, I ought to have known how much better I’d feel, and of course I already knew that would be the easiest way to fit more exercise into my routine (add about 30 mins total to my round-trip commute 2-3 days a week, versus magically conjure 3-4 hours a week to do extra rides or go to the gym? Framed that way the choice is obvious).

But getting over the hurdle to put down my book, get off the subway, and get back in the saddle wasn’t easy. There was that ill-timed cough I get every winter, that seemed to last forever and that I’ve learned the hard way I have to sit out until it passes (or it lasts even longer). My commuting bike needed attention in order for me to make the ride and I’d put it off over the weekend. The alarm would go off at 5:30 instead of 6:00 and I just couldn’t do it.

But then a chance encounter helped things fell into place. I ran into a friend from the train, A. He and I had both been riding the commuter rail with bikes in the fall, and had occasionally said hello, but then our schedules shifted, and we hadn’t seen each other for a while. I saw him again, but without his bike, and asked if he was still riding. As it turned out he was, just not that day, and I told him about my frustration with the ride and knowing I should get going again. He mentioned that he had better luck biking to Back Bay instead of South Station. I have no idea why this hadn’t occurred to me before, but it hadn’t, and when I checked the route, indeed, it was much easier, with a lot less high traffic riding. It also gained me 5 minutes, because the train leaves Back Bay 5 minutes later than South Station.

That was enough of a possibility for improvement to get me off my duff, so a little over a month ago I gave my bike some love, set my alarm early, and started the day with a lovely ride on virtually deserted streets and along the Charles. Once I worked out the timing, it turned out I could leave my house at exactly the same time I left for the subway. The ride back out of Back Bay at the end of my long day was slightly less pleasant, but not miserable, and I didn’t lose nearly as much time as I had out of South Station.

There were still some inconveniences. I needed to pack a change of clothes. I needed to actually eat breakfast before I left in the morning because I couldn’t eat on the train. But I was over the hump. I was riding again. It feels good.

The whole thing was good reminder that the hurdles to fitting biking into life are very real. We often can’t see these hurdles, because we’ve solved our particular set of problems or are just used to some of the mild inconveniences. But a shift in the delicate balance of time and energy needed to get our family where we need to be was enough to tip the balance so that I didn’t just ride automatically. I had to actually try. It was nice to learn, again, how great it feels to start the day with a ride, and that I haven’t been lying when I tell people the effort really is worth it.

Posted in Benefits of being carfree, Biking, Cambridge and Boston area, Problems and issues, Public transportation | 3 Comments

True Life Stories of the Carfree: Annee, Moses, and their 5 kids, near Portland, OR

We’re thrilled to bring you another installment of our continuing series on carfree families, this time featuring a Carfree Family who recently won an Alice Award for outstanding bicycle acheivement! If your family is carfree, we all need your inspiration, so drop us a line at carfreewithkids@gmail.com. If you already dropped us a line and didn’t hear back, it’s not because we don’t want you to contribute, but rather because we sometimes lose things in the inbox. Please write us again!

Describe your family (e.g. how big, how many, how old)

We’re a former minivan driving family of seven, enjoying carfree life since January 2011:

  • Annee – age 41, carfree family matriarch, homeschooling mom, nonprofit administrator
  • Moses – age 54, carfree family patriarch, fitness & nutrition coach, has physical limitations
  • Five children ages 9, 11, 13, 14, & 16 – homeschoolers, Roots & Shoots youth activists, community gardeners, athletes, actors, library employees, film directors, and all around great kids

What type of area do you live in?

We live in an urban area in Washington County, OR, just outside of Portland.  Living adjacent to a Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community definitely has its advantages.  Mass transit, bike lanes, sidewalks, and multi-use pathways are very accessible, even though our city ranked only at the bronze level, mainly due to the lack of interconnectivity of routes in the county.  Motorist attitude makes all the difference to us.  Drivers in Portland are accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists, and that attitude carries over to a degree into neighboring cities.  Still, a seven person cycling family or even one or two of us hauling groceries in trailers is not the norm.

When did your family go carfree?

While our “best family decision ever” went into effect in January 2011, our carfree “anniversary” is December 25, 2010.  That day we took our bike trailer for its inaugural run and were privileged to see two bald eagles in a dance of flight over a small urban wetland area.  We never would have noticed them speeding past in a car.  Animal totem or not, we took this encounter as a sign that going carfree was the righteous choice for us.

How and why did your family choose to go carfree?

In 2009, we participated in the No Impact Experiment with some other folks in the Phoenix Metro Area, where we were living at the time.  The Experiment introduces a new phase each day, starting with consumption, followed by trash, transportation, food, energy, water, and giving back.  The transportation phase was discouraging, elucidating how much fossil fuel we were burning traveling to and from environmental volunteer projects as well as day to day activities.  That was a difficult contradiction to live with.  After moving to an eco-friendlier community in Oregon, our petrol consumption dropped from a tank a week to a tank a month.  Initially we joked about getting rid of the car altogether, but within a year’s time, going carfree became our logical choice in terms of cash savings, environmental commitment, and personal well-being.

What is the typical level of car ownership/dependence for a family like yours in your area?

It’s not uncommon to find carfree families in Portland, but here in the suburbs most families own one or two cars.  Locally, we know just a few carfree families and families who own one car and limit their use by biking, walking, or bussing most places.  Our carfree lifestyle is unique enough to have attracted the attention of Oregonian reporter Casey Parks, who wrote an article and filmed a video about us.  The media coverage has been an opportunity to be a voice for change, yet humbling at the same time.  Certainly some of the families we see on mass transit are also carfree not by choice, but because they can’t afford a car.  For better or worse, our culture doesn’t much celebrate people who live in poverty for their lighter carbon footprint.

What modes of transportation do you use?

We cycle, walk, and use mass transit.  Scooters and rollerblades were a fun experiment, but not the best choices for our general transit needs.  Cycles are almost always our first choice for distances five miles or less and sometimes more.  Our mode of transit varies depending on who is traveling, when, where, and in what weather conditions.   One teen commutes by cycle to work at the library, at times accompanied by teen brother who volunteers there.  The family policy on catching rides from friends is to do so only if it does not necessitate extra driving for pick up or drop off, although we make some allowances for Moses’s physical limitations.  To visit relatives out of state we once rented a minivan.

What do you see as both the benefits and costs of living carfree for your family?

The benefits of living carfree have been practically innumerable for our family.  Most importantly, ditching the minivan for cycles played a huge role in Moses’s journey back to health, as he lost nearly 120 pounds and improved his management of chronic degenerative bone and joint disease by changing his parking space from handi-spot to bike rack. The Mobility for Moses campaign aims to get him onto a trike with supine seating, the doctor prescribed posture for management of his medical conditions.  The only cost of living carfree – and I’d really call it more of an adjustment than a cost – has been time.  In most cases it simply takes longer to get places without a car.  We have learned to manage this adjustment by choosing our trips carefully, planning efficient travel routes, and appreciating the other benefits of time spent on a longer journey, such as exercise, fresh air, nature appreciation, community connection, family conversations, reading, audiobooks, or simply relaxing on the light rail.

How do you arrange grocery shopping or other errands that may involve carrying large amounts of stuff?

With seven household members, including three hungry teens, we’re always buying food.  Hauling large amounts of stuff is no problem using our Avenir cargo trailer with 77 pound weight capacity.  A couple of our bikes also are equipped with racks and waterproof bucket panniers.  At this juncture, we’ve hauled enough stuff that we’ll be offering delivery by cycle this summer in partnership with a local organic subscription farmer (similar to the CSA model).  We’re strongly considering a trailer with 300 pound weight limit from Bikes at Work for this undertaking.

What type of public transit is available in your area (buses, trains, subways, vanpools)? Do you use transit? Why or why not?

Public transit in our area includes light rail and bus service.  We use it for traveling longer distances and to places not safely accessible by cycle.  It is possible to travel by a combination of transportation modes by putting bikes on the light rail or bus, although bike spaces are limited.  Many downtown trips involve cycling to the light rail station to lock up bikes (under BikeLids if we’re lucky), riding light rail, transferring to bus, and walking the last stretch.  On weekends and holidays, bus service in our area is very sketchy, so we prefer to rely on human powered transportation as much as possible.

Have you made any choices to specifically reduce your need for a car?

Location, location, location!  The biggest choice we made to reduce our car needs was moving two years ago to a community where it was feasible to use the car less.  We also choose to find the majority of our friends, resources, and activities within approximately a seven mile radius from home and to limit downtown and long distance undertakings.

If your family bikes, describe your bike set–‐up, particularly if you bike with children.

Our bike set-up is ever evolving and improving.  We began our carfree journey with mostly used bikes.  Over the past year we’ve upgraded to some better used bikes, and Moses and kids have built a couple from mixed parts with assistance from the folks at Washington County Bicycle Transportation Coalition, our local nonprofit cycling center.   Two of our bikes are equipped with racks to carry bucket panniers, and several work well with the trailer.  You may find us cycling in any number grouping from one to seven.

Do you have any additional advice or insights to add?

We’re always learning!  Follow our blogged journey at www.carfreefamily.org and on Facebook

Posted in Benefits of being carfree, Biking, Going and staying carfree, How-to, Public transportation, True Life Stories of the Carfree | 8 Comments

Learning to bike as a grown-up — reader advice please

A friend and sometimes commenter here recently sent a note asking for help and encouragement. She never learned to ride a bike as a kid and wants to learn how now, but she’s getting frustrated. I have a few thoughts, but this is outside our own experience, so I’m hoping some of our readers who either learned or struggled to re-learn how to ride as adults can offer her some advice and encouragement.

Starhillgirl writes:

“I don’t know how to ride a bike. I was given a (mountain?) bike (with a detachable shopping basket!) by a friend. I am disheartened/discouraged after a couple tries riding. Also, my (forgive me) vulva hurts – even now, two days after riding last.

The friend who gave me the bike and the friend whose long, slightly sloped driveway I am practicing on have talked about my poor girl parts and are speculating on a “cruiser” seat.  Is that worth while?  In all honesty, it is uncomfortable enough right now that I cringe just thinking about it.  Like if I sit wrong, right now on the couch, it hurts.  Not like anyone is dying, but enough to make me wince.  I don’t think I am a total wimp…am I broken?

Anyway, do you have ideas?  For ease of learning to ride?  For what to do about the seat issue?  For some magic spell?  I spend all this time telling parents from my school that there is no silver bullet with regard to dealing with children — they just have to do the work.  And here I find myself grasping at straws, trying to find the One Thing that will make me a bike rider without any work….

Which is all to say, I know that I have to keep on keeping on.  But maybe it doesn’t have to hurt so much while I do?”

My thoughts for starhillgirl were the following:

1) How is your seat set? You want it set very very low, just like little kids need when they start to ride. You want to be able to put your feet firmly on the ground.

2) Working on a sloped driveway is great, as long as it’s not so steep you go too fast and get scared. Don’t think about pedaling, just try lifting your feet and putting them down to stop, and work on balancing down the driveway.

3) Work on starting and stopping as an independent skill. Particularly stopping — pushing off for a short distance, lifting your feet, and then firmly planting both feet on the ground. If you know you can stop without hurting yourself, you’ll have the confidence to take more risks, the risks you need to take in order to learn to ride.

4) Regarding the seat, I wish I had a specific seat to recommend. Women generally need wider seats, and most seats are sized for men’s skinny butts. There are seats that have a cutout for your vulva. This is a really common question, so hopefully a friendly bike shop, or perhaps one of our readers, may have a specific recommendation.

5) Learning to ride a bike will actually take work. But it’s worth it!

6) Check out this post over at lovely bicycle. She may not offer an exact solution to your pain issues, but at least you’ll know you aren’t alone.

7) This bike riding school is near us, in Davis Square, Somerville MA. We see Susan, the teacher, out with her determined adult students on the bike path, and they always make me smile. Susan can’t help starhillgirl, who lives far away, but she might be able to help some local readers in a similar situation.

And now it’s your turn. Have any of you learned or relearned to ride in adulthood? Can you offer encouragement or suggestions? An approach that worked for you when learning to ride? Recommend a low-cost comfy (or at least less torturous) saddle?

Posted in Biking, Going and staying carfree, Problems and issues | 13 Comments

On marriage, parenting, biking and blame

A few weeks ago, Angela got into an accident with our brand spanking new bakfiets.

She caught the front wheel in a really bad pothole turning onto a poorly maintained street/alley near H’s Hebrew school. They went over hard. There was no traffic. Everyone was fine. R was in the bike but he was fine (blessings on that bakfiets box. It’s really hard to get hurt in that thing).

When she told me about this that night, she insisted the bike was perfectly fine. I, however, was pretty worried. I’m no bike mechanic, but I know there is some important stuff in and around that wheel  – the generator for the lights, and the connection of the steering rod to the front wheel in particular. But she was right, when I rode the bike, it felt exactly the same. Nothing obvious looked amiss, except a little scratch on the box, and the lights still worked, so we were just glad it wasn’t actually a bad accident and we avoid that alley now.

Except then about a week later, the generator lights stopped working.

It turned out that the plastic tab on the hub that the lights plug into broke in the fall, but was hanging together loosely until another bump came along and it broke all the way. The broken tab is pretty tightly integrated with the hub itself. Some initial conferring with both a mechanically savvy friend and one of our favorite cargo bike savvy local shops indicates it’s going to be a difficult or at least expensive repair, as Shimano does not import the part we need, though working out a different plug may be possible with some creative soldering (the generator still produces current fine, it’s the connection to the lights that’s broken).

The whole thing put me in a really foul mood. This is our perfect bike! We’ve only had it about 4 months and Angela already broke one of the really cool things about it! As our family bike “manager” I’m now stuck figuring out what to do to fix it. It’s something I don’t really know about and something not just any mechanic can help with, which means it’s daunting, and if the whole hub/wheel needs replacing, it has the potential to be pretty damn expensive. Sometimes I like a new puzzle, but I just solved those other bike problems! I don’t want to solve this one! I don’t want our perfect new beautiful bike to be broken!

In short, I was being a big whiny brat.

And even though I wasn’t saying it directly, I definitely blamed Angela.

She should be safer. She should pay more attention. Just open your eyes and you can see the potholes! She should at least be a lot more sympathetic when I’m stuck fixing something she broke.

After a week or so of me stewing and fretting, she called me on being more or less an asshole. I hemmed and hawed. I said she really should pay more attention. I said she should at least be nice and understand that when you have weird bikes and not a ton of mechanical experience, this kind of thing is a real PITA. I said maybe I’d feel better if at least she said sorry, in a genuine sort of way.

I saw the flash of anger in her eyes, but then she didn’t say anything. She took a deep breath. She started to open her mouth, about ready to muster something of a genuine apology, and I suddenly saw clearly what a jerk I was being. I said, ”Stop. Don’t say anything. It’s just a bike. We’ll fix it. I’ve got this all mixed up. I’m the one who had an accident where our son got four stitches and you were nothing but gracious and understanding and didn’t once make me feel like a crappy parent or a crappy biker. And that actually was my fault and someone actually did get hurt. Of course you didn’t do this on purpose. I’m sorry.”

I still have to decide what to do about that hub. But that’s not why I wrote this. I wrote this to apologize for being a judgmental whiny jerk, and to acknowledge out loud that sometimes the interpersonal piece of family biking is tricky. It takes a lot of trust to send your kids out on a bike with your partner (apparently it also takes trust for your partner to ride on a freakishly expensive bicycle that serves as a proto-third-child…). We’re all exposed out there, and it’s not just that we’re exposed as unprotected bikers on busy streets built only for cars. We’re also exposed as parents. People judge us every day for riding with our kids, and some say outright (in front of the kids even) that it’s not something a responsible parent would do. The cultural norm is that it’s our duty to encase our kids in a big “safe” car and then we wouldn’t even notice the potholes. Sometimes this social reality means I start on the defensive, that I demand perfection, of both of us, that we can’t make mistakes or we’ll prove them right. But mistakes come. We both make them. We’re both doing the best we can, and on balance, I’m so grateful I have a wife who loves to ride with our kids, and even loves that new bike as much as I do, even if she did hit a nasty pothole.

Posted in Biking with kids, Problems and issues | 12 Comments

A warm bikey glow

Last weekend, a collection of cargo and family bike folks gathered at our place. Aaron Naparstek, streetsblog founder, is here in Cambridge instead of Brooklyn for the year, and he and I put together the event to contribute to the Revolutions per Minute crowdsourced documentary by Liz Canning. If you haven’t seen the trailer, check it out, and consider contributing footage! Cambridge MA may not be Portland OR, but we’re not doing half bad judging by the looks of our driveway. The short ride we took to film out on the minuteman bikeway definitely inspired us. We’re planning for more group rides as the weather gets more reliable. Many thanks to the many friends who joined us, and especially to Dan Lovering for providing his filming equipment, time and journalism skill for the project.

It was quite the weekend, because the next day, a friend of ours, Sam Christy, had arranged a bike light skillshare, where he taught a collection of about 10 of us how to make his design of a simple, very bright, generator powered bike light. A local worshop contributed space, expertise and tools, and I got to spend the afternoon soldering, filing, and wiring with old and new friends. The lights aren’t done yet, and we’ll still need to buy or build a wheel to power them, but after we get that worked out, they’ll be going on our Xtracycle. It was so empowering to spend time with such a generous and enthusiastic bunch.

If this was just one weekend in the middle of winter, I can’t wait to see what spring and summer bring. Both events were a great reminder of just how vibrant our biking community is around here.

Posted in Biking, Cambridge and Boston area, Links and reviews, Living locally | 6 Comments